Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

The Antagonist: Lucien Bouchard and the Politics of Delusion

by Lawrence Martin

After the storm, the book itself. After leaks about psychiatric profiles, magazine covers portraying a lunatic, a book jacket doctored to do to Lucien Bouchard what Time magazine did to O.J. Simpson (making him look like some monster from the black lagoon), and tidbits about a man who goes berserk when his favourite cookies aren’t served with tea, we have Lawrence Martin’s actual text about the most compelling Canadian politician of our age.

It’s an important study, if only because this is the man who really could end it all, breaking up the peaceable Canadian kingdom and leading his own people, Moses-like, out toward the promised land. That could happen as early as next year.

I don’t, myself, think that he will succeed. Time and the real world are chipping away at the 49.4% Yes vote of 1995 – which was, in any case, in response to a trick question. Still, any country capable of shooting itself so comprehensively in the foot over the modest Meech Lake proposals can still blow it, especially when its principal adversary is a leader as capable and magnetic as Lucien Bouchard.

Lawrence Martin, a superior reporter, has gone back to the origins of this remarkable man and come up with some remarkable stuff. Everything springs from Bouchard’s roots in the Kingdom of the Saguenay, that remote, ethnically pure region of Quebec around Lac St. Jean, almost as much a state of mind as a physical place.

Bouchard had a warm, semi-literate father who worked himself to the bone and drank a few too many beers on Saturday night – to the disapproval of a joyless, religious mother who stamped on fun whenever it threatened to break out in the household. Cut off from the rest of Canada, young Lucien grew up reading about ancient heroes – Alexander, Hannibal, Julius Caesar – and imbibing the glories of France and its offspring, New France, prior to the hateful conquest by les Anglais in 1759.

Intelligence and pride drove him on (“He was burning!” said his brother. “He’s always been burning!”). Humiliation stoked his ire and brought sudden choleric outbursts against the anglo overlords of the region’s industries. In a telling anecdote, we learn how a teenage Bouchard, working in a forest camp one summer, stepped out of his tent in the darkness – and up to his ankles in human excrement. The humiliation! Somehow it was all the anglos’ fault. We may still be paying for that misplaced latrine.

In essence, nothing about Bouchard has changed. His intelligence and drive have taken him to the top in politics. His pride and feelings of humiliation roll forth in mesmerizing speeches which resonate with every francophone Quebecker. His anger and mood swings lead to outbursts when he seems to go bananas.

But no, he isn’t whacko, the way some of the coverage of psychiatrist Vivian Rackoff’s study of him (discovered by Lawrence Martin) might have led the public to believe. This coverage was doubly unfortunate, for it allowed the Quebec French media to jump reflexively to the defence of their premier and denounce the “dirty politics” of his Ottawa opponents, without giving a serious look at the rest of the book.

This means that Martin’s examination of Bouchard’s tendency to switch allegiances, to move from one stunning contradiction to the next and to stab old allies in the back has received only modest notice in the French press. The full perfidy of his betrayal of Brian Mulroney, the old Laval law school chum who raised him to the heights, is outlined here in detail. Jacques Parizeau could have used a précis of the story before he got too close to Bouchard on the sovereignty trail, only to be bushwhacked and ultimately replaced by the ambitious younger man.

Martin must bear some of the blame for the lack of French press, for once he leaves the fascinating early Bouchard behind he becomes less a biographer and more a crusader against “the greatest threat to unity Canada has ever known.” There is less reporting than pamphleteering in the latter part of the book.

It should still, though, be read by thoughtful Canadians. It won’t make them sleep any easier, but at least they’ll know their enemy.


Reviewer: Norman Webster

Publisher: Viking


Price: $35

Page Count: 356 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-670-87437-X

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1997-11

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs