OTTAWA — The crowd roared as a thin, spectacled man in a blue flannel suit came through the pillared doorway of a downtown convention center. Flashbulbs popped, television lights came on, and reporters homed in with their microphones. The premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa, was about to address the Canadian people.
"He's not at all charismatic," said Montreal newspaper editor Paul-Andre Comeau, but that doesn't matter. Robert Bourassa isn't just any Canadian politician, and these aren't ordinary times north of the 49th parallel.
The Quebec premier leads one of the country's largest provinces, with a fourth of the Canadian population. It's the only province where the majority speaks French, and now, Quebec's Francophone separatists are once again on the move.
Bourassa has opposed separatism in the past, but times change, and so may he. These days, when Bourassa speaks, people not only listen--they pick apart his words, seeking clues to what the future may bring.
Polls show that about half of all Quebecers now favor some sort of realignment with English Canada. The number has grown sharply over the past few months, as the country has debated whether to amend the constitution in ways that would give more power to Quebec. A package of amendments faces a June 23 deadline to either be ratified by all 10 provinces or die.
French-speaking Quebecers feel they need the extra constitutional powers because they constitute a threatened minority within Canada. But many English Canadians think the amendments are too generous to their Francophone compatriots, and two provinces, Newfoundland and Manitoba, have been threatening not to sign them in time.
If the amendments die, many Quebecers are likely to conclude there is little point in staying with English Canada. They will call on Bourassa to defend their province's honor, and Bourassa will have to decide how to respond.
If, on the other hand, the constitutional amendments are ratified, middle-of-the-road Quebecers are likely to accept continued union with English Canada and go on about their business. But hard-line "nationalist" Quebecers will keep up the pressure on Bourassa to test the constitutional amendments in court, to show that they really mean something.
Quebec nationalists will also call on Bourassa to go into talks on additional constitutional amendments--some may be called this fall--with an even longer wish-list for their province. Quebecers want greater powers over education, television and radio programming and construction of huge hydro-electrical dams without federal environmental interference. Bourassa will be damned in his own province if he doesn't take up the fight; damned in English Canada if he does.
Bourassa, the product of a Harvard legal education and advanced economic training at Oxford, is a pragmatist with all the elan and personal magnetism of a tax lawyer. So he is unlikely to do anything radical in either case. While there has been widespread speculation that the constitutional battling might prompt him to call a referendum on Quebec independence, those who know him best think he'll take a middling approach.
"If one looks at his political career, one generally gets an impression of someone who avoids rash actions and tries to achieve compromise," says Kenneth McRoberts, a professor of political science at York University and author of a political history of Quebec. "He is someone who is quite cautious and concerned with maintaining his electoral position."
But that isn't to say that Bourassa would do nothing. The premier is a close observer of public-opinion polls and bases his policy decisions in large measure on what he finds in the numbers.
In 1988, for instance, he tried to bridge the gulf between Quebec nationalists, who wanted a ban on English-language signs in the province, and minority English-speakers who said such restrictions would infringe on their civil rights. He banned the signs outdoors, authorizing their use indoors.
"It's a weird compromise," said Comeau. English and French-speakers both grumbled about the straddle, but they took to the streets only once over the issue. "He knew where the opposition was coming from and how strong it was, and that's why he made that compromise. He followed the direction of the polls."
Observers who have watched Bourassa walk the linguistic balance-beam in the past think he'll do the same thing now, if Quebec separatism really does take off.
"He'll try to solidify popular support on some option that's midway between sovereignty and the status quo," said McRoberts.
The premier knows better than most Quebec politicians what can happen to a leader who lets himself be swamped by public opinion. Just 14 years ago he was about the most despised man in all the province.