Bouchard departure leaves Nunavimmiut uncertain of future

Despite their fundamental disagreements on sovereignty, Nunavik leaders will miss Lucien Bouchard.


Last week’s surprise resignation of Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard left Nunavimmiut with some good memories and more than a few worries about what their future holds.

As premier Bouchard paid unprecedented attention to Nunavik, partly due to this region’s strategic importance in any plans to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada.

The first Quebec premier to go to Nunavik since René Lévesque, Bouchard first visited Kangiqsualujjuaq on a sunny and unusually warm September day in 1997.

Before meeting with regional leaders in the Satuumavik School gym, Bouchard took time to meet with the crowd gathered outside the school and to speak with children studying in French.

A year and a half later, Bouchard was to call Kangiqsualujjuaq’s mayor Maggie Emudluk the day after the disastrous avalanche that had destroyed the school and killed nine people.

“I told him the avalanche, it was in the gym where he had been before. He was so sympathetic,” Emudluk recalled last week.

Emudluk said Bouchard seemed to be a very understanding man whose political word she learned to trust, despite his sovereignist views.

Two days after the avalanche, Bouchard arrived in Kangiqsualujjuaq to tour the community.

“He assured us he would be ready to provide us with everything to get back to normal, and that’s what the government was there for. I think they provided what was necessary,” Emudluk said.

Emudluk, who is also an executive member of the Kativik Regional Government, says Bouchard’s support for Quebec’s sovereignty didn’t hamper his relations with Nunavimmiut.

Putting aside differences

Makivik Corporation President Pita Aatami said he also manged to put Bouchard’s fervent nationalism to one side to work with him on issues important to Nunavik.

“He understood where we were coming from. He understood we have our own aspirations, and we respect theirs,” Aatami said.

Aatami said he is still “elated” because, with Bouchard’s departure, the sovereignty movement might “be put to bed once and for all.”

But Nunavik’s own move towards a new regional self-government may also be slowed down as a result of Bouchard’s departure.

“He was right behind the endeavour and gave it credibility,” said Paul Bussières, a lawyer and secretary of the Nunavik Commission. “It’s a file where people will need courage, and governments never want to make the first step in a new project.”

In his emotional resignation speech in Quebec City last week, Bouchard slammed intolerance and racism among some of his Parti Québécois supporters as well as the current apathy for sovereignist causes among Quebec voters.

At the same time, Bouchard admitted that he’s become discouraged with politics.

“It will be acknowledged that I never hesitated to tackle problems head-on, and that I always wanted to make Quebec advance, with the constant preoccupation of being premier of all Quebecers,” Bouchard said. “I put all my heart and strength into it. If it happens that I hurt some opponents or anyone at all, I sincerely apologize and assure them it wasn’t done through meanness or lack of respect.”

Bourchard also expressed a growing desire to spend more time with his wife, Audrey, and two sons, aged 9 and 11.

But whether he left the office of premier from frustration, fatigue, or for family reasons, one thing is sure: Bouchard’s resignation caught many of his fellow politicians off-guard.

PQ in free-fall

“I was surprised by his decision, coming two years after his election,” said Nunavik’s member of Parliament, Guy St-Julien. “I think it’s a personal decision, and he made it for his wife and two children. That’s because political life isn’t easy, and he’d had enough. Enough is enough.”

St-Julien said he got to know Bouchard and his wife in the late 1980s when he and Bouchard were colleagues in Ottawa — Progressive Conservative MPs in Brian Mulroney’s government. While St-Julien moved over to join the Liberal Party, Bouchard founded the Bloc Québécois, the federal party which represents Quebec nationalists in Ottawa.

But the BQ didn’t even win in the St. Jean riding on Bouchard’s home turf, and St-Julien suggested that the BQ’s poor showing in the Nov. 30 federal election devastated Bouchard.

“They’re in free-fall,” St-Julien said. “And he was the founder.”

As for the creation of Nunavut, Bouchard also gave support to the idea as a member of Parliament and, later, as Quebec’s premier.

“It was very helpful, coming from the largest province,” Nunavut’s premier Paul Okalik said.

Okalik met Bouchard at the 1999 Canadian premiers’ conference in Quebec City, which was hosted by Bouchard.

“He made me feel very welcome,” Okalik said. “When you’re attending your first meeting, you’re a little nervous. He made sure I was heard. I really appreciated his support.”

Possible successors to Bouchard include deputy premier Bernard Landry and health minister Pauline Marois — both of whom have visited Nunavik in the past.

Bouchard will stay on as premier until a new leader is chosen by Parti Québécois members in the spring.

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