Speaking in Quebec City this past week, at a high profile event organized in honour of the centenary of Le Devoir newspaper, former PQ Premier Lucien Bouchard took slaps at his old party, its leader Pauline Marois and its “raison d’être” Quebec sovereignty. His rough and ready commentary provoked responses across the political spectrum. The most annoying person in Quebec was at it again.

Bouchard charged the PQ with “radicalism,” accusing it of showing intolerance on the question of Jewish orthodox schools opening on weekends, in order to outflank from the right the fringe ADQ party (fallen on bad times without its founding leader Mario Dumont). Gérard Bouchard, brother of Lucien, and a well known Quebec academic had (with McGill Philosopher Charles Taylor) co-chaired a commission looking at what “reasonable accommodation” of religious and cultural differences requires in contemporary Quebec. Personally piqued, Lucien Bouchard went after Pauline Marois for remarks she made comparing his brother to “Elvis Gratton” the dull-witted Quebec impersonator of Elvis Presley well known in Quebec from a Pierre Falardeau film.

If he had left it at that, he would have still had his headlines. But Bouchard intended to use centre stage to even greater advantage. The 71-year-old very active corporate lawyer dismissed the idea that Quebecers were interested in sovereignty now, or would be willing to contemplate another referendum any time soon. Not in “my lifetime” he said. Moreover, Bouchard wants Quebecers to dream a new dream. Returning to a theme “lucidity,” he with others brought forward in 2005, Bouchard strafed the PQ for not addressing itself to the big questions: education — in particular the alarming rates of school drop-outs; health and public debt, which he wants dealt with through consumption taxes and increases in household Quebec-Hydro payments.

Reaction to the Bouchard statements has been heated, extensive and ranged from the thoughtful, to the dismissive. Nobody is neutral. The moderate reaction was that on the referendum issue Bouchard was only saying publicly, what other sovereignists were saying privately. What got people going was that while Bouchard said he was still a sovereignist — he hurt the cause with his negative remarks about its pertinence today, and then went out of his way to undermine his party, and disparage its leader.

The thing with Bouchard is that while he has a knack for looking and sounding convinced, which helps convince others, over the years his public pronouncements do not enlighten very much. As leading public voices went back and forth over what Bouchard had to say, it became apparent that (unlike William Johnson in the Globe and Mail) almost nobody in Quebec thought he has added anything useful to public debate, unless it was to inflame sovereignist passions.

La Presse editorial writer André Pratte has been warning his readers that Quebec remains one good crisis away from another debate over sovereignty. In other words Bouchard is wrong when he plays down the attachment to sovereignty in Quebec. As Robert Durtrisac discussed in Le Devoir on the weekend, sovereignists can be divided into tendencies. There are the “fatigued” ones like Bouchard who have given up on the struggle, those impatiently calling for another referendum, those who think sovereignty is inevitable and are prepared to wait, and those on the hustings spreading the word, the PQ members of the Quebec National Assembly. Alongside the PQ are the BQ MPs sent to Ottawa regularly since Bouchard founded the party (at the urging of then Liberal premier Robert Bourassa) after the failure of the Meech Lake accord.

PQ leader Marois tried to dismiss Bouchard by labeling him a “mother-in-law.” What she should be doing is thanking him for showing how eager Quebecers are to debate and discuss their future, leaving all options on the table.

Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.