Ex-Quebec premier says he's disappointed with Bernier
MONTREAL - Maxime Bernier was an avowed supporter of Quebec independence, says a former boss who's now disappointed to see his old protege taking shots at his home province.
Ex-Parti Quebecois premier Bernard Landry says he's "flabbergasted" by some of the things Bernier has been saying lately.
Bernier has quickly become a darling of the Conservative party grassroots with his criticism of climate-change science, and of Quebec's social-welfare model.
There are even whispers that Bernier -- who served for two years in Stephen Harper's cabinet -- might be positioning himself for a run someday at the leadership of the federal party.
Landry is surprised by his former employee's political path.
"To work in my office you had to be independandiste, which he said he was," Landry told The Canadian Press in an interview.
"I believed him and I still believe him."
Landry was finance minister in Lucien Bouchard's government in the late 1990s and hired the young lawyer to handle regulatory reforms in the financial sector.
Landry's office was also actively working on promoting the idea of a fiscal imbalance - whereby Quebec and other provinces were being shortchanged by the federal government.
So when Bernier, in a speech earlier this month, accused Quebec of being overly reliant on federal equalization money and argued that "many people in the rest of the country perceive Quebecers to be a bunch of spoiled children," his former boss says he was left puzzled.
To Landry, it all amounted to a stunning reversal in logic.
"I was flabbergasted to hear his false, contemptuous declarations," said the former finance minister-turned-premier.
Landry pointed out it was the Conservative government, with Bernier holding a senior cabinet role, that acknowledged an imbalance and transferred billions to the provinces.
"There seems to be an incoherence," Landry said.
Landry is not the first prominent Quebecer to lash out at Bernier following his speech this month in Mont St-Gregoire. The province's finance minister, Raymond Bachand, called it "Quebec-bashing."
The speech appears part of Bernier's ongoing campaign to rehabilitate his reputation in the eyes of Conservatives after stepping down in disgrace as foreign affairs minister in 2008.
Earlier this year, he wrote a letter to a Montreal newspaper questioning the science of climate change.
He also earned headlines and accolades from party faithful for a speech in Calgary where he advocated zero budget growth.
Bernier downplayed talk of his old sovereigntist convictions.
He says he was among many Quebecers who grew disenchanted with Canadian federalism after the rejection of the Meech Lake accord in 1990.
"At the start of my career, as a young lawyer, I flirted with the Parti Quebecois," Bernier told The Canadian Press. "I've never hid the fact.
"I'm a guy who wants the Canadian Constitution respected, and we had Liberal governments who were constantly interfering in Quebec's affairs."
Bernier says his past support for independence is well-documented.
Indeed, in the saucy tell-all written by Julie Couillard, the ex-girlfriend at the centre of the scandal that ended his time in cabinet, Bernier is portrayed as thinking of independence as "inevitable."
Landry agreed with that characterization: "What he said to Julie Couillard he said to me."
Interestingly, Bernier says he voted "No" against independence in the 1995 Quebec referendum.
This was five years after the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, an attempt at constitutional peace with Quebec. But it was also before he worked for Landry, who only became finance minister in 1996.
Bernier explains that 1995 vote by saying he never considered sovereignty a panacea: "I never saw independence as the solution to all of Quebec's problems," Bernier said.
Bernier didn't enter federal politics until the 2006 election.
He says Stephen Harper's commitment to respecting provincial jurisdictions appealed to him as a member of the Montreal Economic Institute and advocate for a smaller federal government.
His political rise, which included lofty cabinet positions at Industry and Foreign Affairs, was as quick as his fall, which was sealed by revelations he forgot top-secret documents at Couillard's house.
But since Christmas, Bernier has emerged as a star attraction in right-wing circles, where he's applauded for his willingness to express opinions Tory cabinet ministers would not dare utter in public.
There's plenty of speculation, on and off Parliament Hill, that he's setting the stage for an eventual run at the party leadership.
Not so, says Bernier. He says he's more interested in the fate of the Conservatives in Quebec. That's why he intends to bring his message to several more Quebec ridings in the coming weeks.
Bernier believes there is a strong base for conservative ideas in the province. He says he views his task as turning that support into a movement headed by the Conservative party, much like the Bloc Quebecois represents sovereigntists.
"I respect the Bloc Quebecois because they have a cause, which I don't happen to share," he said. "We conservatives, we too have a cause, and that's what I'm trying to convince Quebecers of."
Landry, however, is skeptical about Bernier's chance of success.
"His right-wing thinking is effectively contrary to just about all of Quebec's political orientation since 1960," he said.
But while the former boss had harsh words for the former employee, Bernier was effusive in his praise for Landry.
"I worked for him for two years and have a lot of respect for him," he said. "Mr. Landry was the first Quebec politician to support free trade."