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MacDonald, L. Ian.

Montreal, Harvest House, c1984. 324pp, cloth, $19.95, ISBN 0-88772-030-7. Distributed by Harvest House, 2335 Sherbrooke St. West, Suite 206-208, Montreal, Que., H3H 1G6. CIP

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Robert Nicholas Bérard

Volume 14 Number 1
1986 January

Despite its title, this book pays relatively little attention to Robert Bourassa, either before his stunning defeat in November 1976 by the Parti Québecois or after his seemingly miraculous resurrection as leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec in October 1983. Neither is the book a history of "a pivotal decade in Canadian history," unless one defines that history solely in terms of the politics of Quebec Liberalism. It is rather a glib and gossipy account of the rise and fall of Claude Ryan in his dual role as saviour of Canada and leader of the Quebec Liberals. The omission of Ryan's name from the title may be a conscious attempt by the author to characterize Ryan's almost complete disappearance from contemporary political affairs.

The election of 1976 produced a massive rejection of Robert Bourassa's government as one associated with graft, corruption, the imposition of martial law on Quebec, linguistic strife, and countless other sins. Ironically, it was to Claude Ryan, the publisher of the influential Le Devoir, who had been one of Bourassa's most devastating critics and who had endorsed the Parti Québecois in 1976, that the eminences of the Liberal Party turned following Bourassa's resignation and self-imposed exile. Despite his own vacillation, the opposition of many grass-roots loyalists, and Ryan's demands for a free hand to remake Québec Liberalism in his own image, he was able to fight off a challenge from Bourassa lieutenant Raymond Garneau, aided by the bulk of the media and the leading wire-pullers of the party who sought a new public image for Liberalism.

Several chapters examine Ryan's clumsy and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to win real control over the party apparatus for himself and those whose first loyalty was to him, his stormy relationship with "The Cousins," the powerful elite of federal MPs and cabinet ministers from Quebec, and his noble, dignified, but, in the author's view, ineffectual leadership of the "Non" forces in the 1980 referendum campaign. Yet whether one credits Ryan's reasoned and measured criticisms of sovereignty-association or the more emotional or materialistic appeals mounted by the federal government and other groups in the campaign for turning the tide, the defeat of the referendum question should have been a triumph for the Liberal leader. Instead it marked the beginning of his political demise.

Between the referendum and the next federal election, Pierre Trudeau's plan to patriate the Canadian constitution uni-laterally cut the ground from under Claude Ryan. Throughout the referendum campaign Trudeau and Ryan had promised voters a renewed and reformed federalism, with strong guarantees for Québec's traditional rights and historic aspirations. Ryan had himself produced a blueprint for a new confederation, one that enjoyed widespread support for many of its proposals both within and without Québec. Trudeau's plan, however, and the high-handed manner in which he sought to effect it seemed a betrayal. Ryan was forced into joining the Québec government in opposition to his federal leader or renouncing the principles and ideals for which he had always campaigned.The best man to defend the interests of Québec in the new circumstances was seen to be Réne Lévesque, and the voters returned his government with a healthy majority.

Ryan had perhaps always been foreign tissue in the Liberal Party, and that rejected him quickly and thoroughly after his defeat. With the support of the party loyalists, the acquiescence of the federal Liberals, the encouragement of federal Conservative leader Brian Mulroney, and the absence of any credible alternative, Robert Bourassa returned to the leadership. He has now won a seat in the National Assembly, and it remains to be seen if Quebec has forgotten or forgiven the transgressions that led to their dismissal of Bourassa in 1976.

L. Ian MacDonald, a columnist for The Gazette of Montreal and the biographer of Brian Mulroney, leads the reader through the backrooms of Quebec politics with both the strengths and weaknesses of a journalistic approach. The book is fast-paced and easy to read, but it is as long on personal characterization as it is short on reflective analysis, as superficial as it affects to be knowing. Phrases such as "the Outremont crowd" or "the Grand Allée crowd," which seem a crisp shorthand in a column, become trite and tiresome in a book of this length. Furthermore, while claiming to treat a "pivotal decade" in the political life of Quebec, MacDonald has included in his list of one hundred interviewees no major figure from the Parti Québecois other than Robert Burns. He does make clear, however, just how small and interconnected is the circle of friends and rivals who make up the Quebec political scene, and, if his reportage is accurate, suggests that political relationships are based more on the sharing of lunch than ideals. The book tells an interesting story with a light, perhaps too light, touch, but it is likely to become dated quickly.

Robert Nicholas Bérard, Dept. of Education, Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S.
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