(Published in the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen, November 29, 2001)
One of the constant complaints about Robert Bourassa, particularly by the Parti Québécois, was that he was wealthy and did not know the slings and arrows suffered by common people, whom the Parti Québécois presumably represented. Yet Bernard Landry has recently established himself in a new official residence at the top of the tallest building in the walled city of Quebec. His mentor Jacques Parizeau also created a large ostentatious residence for himself, when he was premier. René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard, to their credit, were satisfied with the bedroom behind the premier's office in the cement office building on Grande Allée better known as "the bunker".
But what of Bourassa? He was first elected as a back-bencher in 1966 and spent the next four years in a room in the ancient Hotel Victoria in the old quarter at $8.00 per night and was still there in 1970, when he replaced Jean Lesage as leader of the Opposition. Claude Wagner came in second at the nominating convention and Bourassa met privately with him, in order to get his cooperation. Wagner chose Bourassa's hotel, where he was surprised to be offered a seat on the bed or on the only chair. Wagner, who claimed to be a populist, wondered how the future premier of Quebec could have such a residence. The answer was that Bourassa cared little for personal comfort, but genuinely liked to talk to people on all levels, of society, including the patrons of the Victoria. When Bourassa was elected premier in April 1970, he continued to live contentedly there, only moving later into the bunker for security reasons.
Bourassa, who was of modest means, married into a wealthy family and he and his wife lived well, but not ostentatiously. He never learned to drive a car, but always took taxis or had a driver, because that was more efficient. In fact, his public life was based on efficiency. Once, when having a haircut at the Ritz in Montreal, the barber noted that his hair had seemed disordered on TV, the night before. On-the-spot, Bourassa hired the assistant barber, who was also to act as body guard and filing clerk. Trudeau once called Bourassa a "mangeur de hotdogs" and it is true that he could eat four or five at lunch on the roof of the bunker, like a ravenous schoolboy, but late every evening he had a fine dinner with staff and friends at one of Quebec's best restaurants. He was a very generous host and every year he and his wife gave a dinner dance in a private country hotel for the whole Quebec Liberal Caucus.
Bourassa was cerebral and never spent time in developing a public persona, which in my view was unfortunate because, one-on-one, he was very charming, and genuinely interested in other people.
Is the residence of the premier of Quebec, important? Probably not, but it is indicative of priorities. Landry feels the apartment is necessary for Quebec's prestige, of which he speaks often and at times unwisely. Bourassa did not deal with symbols and was more circumspect, rarely making pronouncements, although once, to the consternation of his advisers, he promised the creation of 100,000 jobs in his first year in office. He nearly pulled it off, however, by his James Bay hydro-electric project.
Landry's official residence and occasional outrageous declarations are driven by his first priority - not only separation from Canada at some time in the future, but the trappings and grandeur of independence right now.
William Tetley was Minister of Financial Institutions in Bourassa's Cabinet from 1970-1976 and presently teaches law at McGill.