I met Robert Bourassa on just one occasion in the course of his, unfortunately, rather short life.
It was a Sunday in 1972 at the old YMCA on Drummond Street. How odd I thought it was that a man who married into wealth, and who lived in Outremont, would come to downtown Montreal to seek out a swimming pool, especially since he was premier of the province at the time. Yet, only two years before, journalist Richard Cleroux had pointed out (Gazette, July 18, 1970) that, early in his political career, swimming in public baths was indeed “the premiers’ favorite pastime.”
While at the YMCA that day, he chatted easily – in either language – with anyone who approached him, as he did with me. We exchanged only pleasantries, as I was certain he was not there to discuss politics, but rather to get a little R & R.
As chance would have it, we both left the building at the same time, continuing our amiable conversation as we walked together. We separated when the Quebec Premier entered his government limousine that awaited him on Drummond Street; whereupon I returned to my nearby modest student apartment.
In truth, I never heard anyone say a bad word about Robert Bourassa, the man – certainly not from my mouth. A good and decent person, he most definitely was.
The difficulty is when we move from the private to the public man, as is often the case with virtually any politician.
As a general rule, most of us do not believe in speaking negatively about someone who has left us and, therefore, is no longer in a position to defend himself, or his actions. It just doesn’t seem right.
That being said, when historic, patrimonial street names are being ‘re-baptized’ (University Street), and the Quebec Parliament is asked to adopt a motion to commemorate a rather obscure and partisan anniversary (“Snub over motion to honour former Liberal premier draws scorn”, Gazette, December 4, 2015, A-2), perhaps it is time for those of us who did not always agree with the politics of Robert Bourassa to open our mouths.
Let’s start with a simple fact: neither die hard federalists nor intransigent Quebec nationalists particularly appreciated the political adventures of the late Quebec premier. Bourassa, an incorrigible fence sitter if ever there were one, simply exhausted voters with his ambivalence about the two great constitutional currents of his time. As a result, his rapport with both of these factions was constantly pushed to the limit.
Bourassa’s first tangible political equivocation came in the summer of 1971 over the question of the Victoria Charter for the amending of the Canadian constitution. After intense negotiations, a deal seemed to have been struck only to have been tossed aside later by Bourassa when three of his Cabinet members threatened to resign over the issue.
His relations with First Nations were not much better either. In June of 1990, as time slowly slipped away on the ratification of the Meech Lake Accord, the late Quebec premier haughtily warned indigenous peoples that they would be working against their own best interests if they pursued their opposition to this contentious constitutional deal. This, after the government that he led opposed the recognition of First Nations as also constituting a ‘distinct society’ within Canada, only aggravated matters further.
As we all know, the approval process for the accord ran its course, unsuccessfully, on June 23, 1990; more or less at the same time as the outbreak of the hostilities that later became known as the Oka Crisis. In this file as well, Bourassa and his government did not particularly excel, as the Cabinet essentially continued with their summer holiday, leaving the explosive issue in the hands of John Ciaccia, Bourassa’s Minister of Native Affairs, who struggled with crisis for most of its 78-day duration.
Other comments about the record of Robert Bourassa could easily be made, by me and by others. However, many believe, especially historians, that appraisals of this nature should be left to future generations; that only with the passage of time can the required objectivity be assured.
Below, Robert Bourassa