Lucien Bouchard takes on Quebec's 'general malaise'

Former premier Lucien Bouchard stunned his former PQ colleagues recently by speaking out in favour of tuition hikes and Liberal Premier Jean Charest. But as Terence McKenna writes, Bouchard has always been his own man and has no taste for the wild demonstrations going on these past weeks.

Lucien Bouchard's private office on the 26th floor of a prestigious Montreal law firm has a panoramic view of the McGill University campus and Mount Royal.

"I've been here 10 years now" he told me in late April, "and I love watching the changing seasons out this window."

The former Quebec premier was in an expansive mood when I met with him to discuss the student protests that have rocked Quebec this spring.

He even joked that he has a personal stake in the debate about rising tuition fees, proudly showing me photos of his two sons, Alexandre and Simon, both now students at McGill.

But Bouchard has spoken out for years about the need to increase the fees and to provide more funding for Quebec universities.

Former premier Lucien Bouchard with the CBC's Terence McKenna, in a rare TV interview in April 2012. (CBC)

And if his rare public intervention earlier this month — signing a public letter encouraging the Liberal government to stay the course and raise fees — had the added force of putting his old Parti Québécois colleagues on the defensive, well, he can live with that.

Bouchard's primary concern here is about maintaining the quality of post-secondary schooling in Quebec in comparison with the rest of Canada.

But he is also shocked by the aggressive tone of the students demonstrating in the streets.

"When I was a young guy, the age of those in the streets now, we admired politicians," he said. "We thought they were building Quebec for us.

"Of course, we could criticize them, but we had respect and admiration for them. Now it has changed.

"Generally in Quebec people have lost the passion and all the respect they have for political action. There is a general malaise in Quebec towards politics."

Nothing like 1995

I followed Bouchard through the most intense period of his political life — the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign, which he co-ran for the Yes side when he was the leader of the Bloc Québécois.

A student protestor heaves a projectile at riot police during a demonstration at a Quebec Liberal party gathering in Victoriaville on May 4, 2012. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

He had just pulled through his almost fatal battle with flesh-eating disease, and as he walked into political rallies, struggling with his cane and his artificial leg, he was treated as a kind of messiah. People were sobbing, reaching out to touch his clothes as he passed by.

He compares the battle over tuition fees today to that 1995 debate, which split Quebec in two and pitted family members against each other.  

"We had that very intense period of fighting and arguing, and it was quite an issue," he says.

"The decision to leave a country and to create another … tearing up your identity, that's tough, a very tough issue."

But as he recalls it, a huge percentage of Quebecers participated in that vote in 1995 and you never saw anything like the angry demonstrations in the streets like you see today.

"Just a peaceful debate," he says. "Intense, vigorous, but peaceful. I would say respectful. So I don't understand what's happening" now.

Currently in its 14th week, the "strike" by at least a third of Quebec's post-secondary students has led to violent clashes on college campuses, in downtown Montreal and at a Liberal Party gathering in Victoriaville, where police resorted to tear gas and even plastic bullets to clear the protestors.

At least 30 court injunctions have been granted schools in recent weeks to try to keep classes going. But the demonstrations have continued and, on Monday, the education minister, Line Beauchamp, resigned and quit politics, saying she felt she had lost trust with the student leaders she had been negotiating with.

'I say what I think'

Today, at 73, Bouchard is a high-priced corporate lawyer. Many companies seek out his advice and the negotiating skills he developed through years of practising labour law, becoming Canada's leader of the Official Opposition and then Quebec's premier.

He recently became a spokesman for the companies seeking to develop the controversial shale-gas industry in Quebec.

When I pointed out to him that many student leaders would say that he represents the greedy older generation, the fat-cat one per centers, Bouchard says that is a diversion.

That has become an element of today's debate, he laments — "You know, 'I don't contest your arguments I don't attack the logic of your argument, but I don't like you because you're rich, because you're this, because you're that'" — and he feels that kind of argument diminishes people.

"I don't think it's about rich and poor people," he says of the current situation, reminding me that his father was a truck driver who sacrificed much so that his children would have a university education.

That was a choice that many families made and he questions the fairness of the current low-fee system that effectively forces lower-income taxpayers to fund the education of people who will enter high-paid professions shortly after graduating.

"Many of those students will, of course, be very successful in life. They will be doctors or lawyers, dentists, finance people.

"So it doesn't make sense that this training, sometimes very expensive, is paid by the average taxpayers."

Bouchard's intervention comes at a time when his former PQ party members are wearing the students' "red square" protest symbol on their lapels, even in sessions of the Quebec national assembly.

I pointed out to him that his former colleagues are not pleased to see him coming out in support of Jean Charest's Liberals.

"I don't know and I don't mind," was his response. "I am my own person.

"I was my own person when I was leader of the party and I'm still my own person. I try to say what I think … I thought that I had to express my opinion on what's happening now."