Quebec Liberals celebrate Robert Bourassa’s legacy and impact

Former insiders recall October Crisis and launch of James Bay Project

Looking back on former Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa’s accomplishments and political legacy, it’s sometimes a little hard to believe that during the mid-1970s Bourassa was regarded by many as the most reviled political figure in Quebec.

As leader of the PLQ – a party that always strove to be in the middle of the political spectrum, while trying to reconcile both ends – Bourassa’s downfall was almost inevitable during that highly nationalistic era.

A rock and a hard place

He would would find himself caught between the increasingly powerful sovereignist forces in Quebec – demanding greater protections for the French language and culture – and the English-speaking minority, protesting the degradation of their rights. The Anglos would largely abandon the Liberals in 1976 – allowing the PQ, for the first time, to form a government.

Many aspects of Bourassa’s political life came up during an online homage held by he PLQ in a Zoom videoconference channel last Saturday morning for card-carrying party members and their guests.

50th anniversary event

The virtual gathering marked the 50th anniversary of April 29, 1970 – the date when Robert Bourassa formed his first provincial government and, at age 36, became the youngest premier in the history of Quebec.

Bourassa would go on to win four mandates, although in two distinct time frames – 1970-1976 and 1985-1994 – periods that are sometimes referred to as Bourassa I and II.

Seen in this screen capture from the PLQ’s online videoconference last Saturday are (clockwise from top left, ending in the centre) ex-Bourassa chief of staff Guy Langlois, former Bourassa director of communications and ex-PLQ d-g Ronald Poupart, current PLQ d-g Véronique Tremblay, ex-Bourassa press attaché Sylvie Godin, former Bourassa cabinet minister Raymond Garneau, former Bourassa chief of staff John Parisella, Bourassa’s daughter Michelle Bourassa, and Jean Masson, the first president of the PLQ’s youth commission.

Eight former insiders (including his daughter, as well as a past Liberal Minister of Finance) recalled their times living or serving alongside someone that historians have come to regard as one of the most successful political leaders ever to govern Quebec.

Among the more noteworthy instances recalled during the videoconference: Guy Langlois, who was Bourassa’s chief of staff in Quebec City in 1970, remembered the moment when he and Bourassa first learned of the events that would trigger the October Crisis.

Kidnapping of James Cross

“We had gone to New York to meet John Rockefeller,” said Langlois. [Bourassa had travelled to the U.S. to seek financing for the massive James Bay hydroelectric project.]

They recalled their times living or serving alongside one of the most highly-regarded political leaders ever to govern Quebec

“So we came back to Montreal and we met with Jérôme Choquette, the Minister of Justice, at a hotel on Côte de Liesse where he briefed us on the situation following the kidnapping of James Cross.”

A short time later, in Sorel about 60 kilometres east of Montreal where Bourassa (who had married into the wealthy Simard family) would spend time with his wife and in-laws, Choquette informed him over the phone that Liberal Labour Minister Pierre Laporte had by now also been taken hostage by the Front de Libération du Québec.

Start of October Crisis

Langlois said he told the one police officer assigned to stand outside to guard Bourassa that he should go fetch the handgun he’d left in his car, and call for additional police reinforcements to protect the Premier from the impending terrorist threat.

According to Langlois, Bourassa then placed a call to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in Ottawa, and convened an emergency meeting of the provincial cabinet at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. “That was the beginning of the October Crisis,” Langlois said.

A ‘loss of innocence’

Bourassa’s daughter, Michelle, was only four years old when the October Crisis erupted. She said she can still remember the night she was scooped out of bed, placed in a car and driven off in a motorcade guarded by motorcycle police to a safe place.

“For me the October Crisis, I think, was a kind of loss of innocence,” she said, recollecting that around the same time she was also with her parents in their living room at home when the FLQ Manifesto was read out on TV. And she remembered when the news of Laporte’s death was announced.

On a happier note, Ronald Poupart, who was Bourassa’s director of communications and at one time also the PLQ’s executive-director, recalled what was undoubtedly to be Bourassa’s and the Quebec Liberals’ proudest accomplishment – the James Bay project.

James Bay Project

According to Poupart, Bourassa and the PLQ leadership made the conscious decision to shine a spotlight on the announcement as an optimistic counterpoint to the negative impact the October Crisis had on Quebec.

[Bourassa had been working on a vision of the James Bay project since at least 1969 when he was still a PLQ backbencher; he then made it a plank in his platform for the Liberal leadership, before going on to win the 1970 election.]

Ironically, according to Raymond Garneau, who was Treasury Board President in the Bourassa cabinet, the Parti Québécois, which had elected its first MNAs to the National Assembly in 1970, were critical at that particular time of such large hydroelectric projects – preferring nuclear energy instead.

“Imagine today, if we had chosen to launch ourselves into nuclear energy,” noted Garneau. “What a disaster it would be because of all the environmental concerns.”