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Even five years removed from public life, he still knows how to stir up a room — sometimes before actually making an entrance. By the time Lucien Bouchard arrived at Redpath Hall for his speech to the Oct. 19 Our Future : A Public Dialogue conference, he had already unleashed a media frenzy by telling a television reporter that one of the problems Quebec needs to address is the fact that Quebecers work less than Ontarians and Americans. The comment fueled water-cooler chitchat and editorial cartoons for days ahead of the McGill conference, organized on the first anniversary of the manifesto, "Pour un Quebec Lucide," signed by Bouchard and 12 other prominent Quebecers from the domains of economics, culture, the media and politics. "We should thank McGill University for having hosted this conference," Bouchard later told the Reporter. "Initiatives such as this one will trigger debates of the utmost importance for all Quebecers."
For McGill, the conference was a welcome positioning of the university as a forum for debate on the issues facing Quebecers in the new millennium. Among the hard issues addressed during the one-day conference, by panelists such as Lucide signatory André Pratte of La Presse and Concordia University President Claude Lajeunesse, were demographics, globalization, education and innovation. Leaders in Quebec business, research and education were on hand to review these issues in the context of progress raised and arguments engaged by the manifesto itself. "We called this conference to take advantage of the momentum that has emerged in the discussions triggered by last year's manifesto," said Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum, "and I thank all the participants for their contributions to a debate so critical to Quebec's future."
The manifesto, published last year to a highly polarized response, argued that the status quo in Quebec will not hold, thanks to the grim inevitability of demographics. Our population is dropping at a speed rivaled only by Japan's. That, combined with the looming economic threat from emerging economies, said many of the participants, means that Quebecers are in need of a reality check.
The manifesto signatories (referred to as "lucides"), Bouchard in particular, have drawn fire insisting that Quebecers see their future through rose-coloured glasses in part because they have seen so much growth over the past generation. That economic growth, they say, is about to drop into a sharp decline along with the population.
On education, Concordia President Lajeunesse astutely pointed out that the province's freeze on university tuition makes a post-secondary education here cheaper than day care.
Although questions regarding taxation issues inevitably lead to the fault line that has traditionally divided conservative and liberal thinking, the MO of the conference was to look beyond that dialectic. In the opening session, Antonia Maioni drew upon art history to underscore the power of innovative thinking, noting that Picasso's rose and blue periods were followed by his revolutionary development of cubism, "a reconciliation of opposing perspectives in a new multidimensional space."
Closing the conference, Bouchard made an impassioned plea to Quebecers. "There is something irresponsible about giving ourselves advantages that the next generation will not be able to afford," he said. Quebec should not wait for the crisis before taking action, but should move forward, "not left or right, but straight ahead, eyes open."
McGill will definitely move forward with its role in the debate. "The feedback so far has been extremely positive," said Munroe-Blum, adding, "We will stay at it."