In October 1995, Quebec was voting in a second referendum on independence. The federalist side had been winning – until Quebec’s separatist premier passed control of the campaign to the younger and more popular leader of the Bloc Québécois, Lucien Bouchard.
When that happened, the separatist option – the option that would see Quebec leave Canada – started to acquire momentum.
The arguments, pro and con, had all been heard before. Many of the key players in the ‘oui’ or ‘non’ fight were well known, too.
What was different, and what nearly broke up Canada, was Bouchard. The Bloc leader had lost a leg to a fast-moving and potentially deadly bacteria just months earlier. Many had thought he would die.
He didn’t. He came back from the dead and rewrote history.
Bouchard did that by embracing the illness that had almost killed him. At rally after rally that October, the lights were dimmed and a single light was directed at a podium.
The halls would grow silent. Leaning on a cane, Bouchard would move towards the podium, apparently in pain, with every eye watching him. He’d reach the podium, then hand the cane to an assistant, just beyond the rim of light. And then he would start – a fist clenched, his voice ranging from a shout to a whisper. He was extraordinary.
He would hold his audience spellbound, as he would plead for Quebecers to become, once and for all, masters in their own house. The atmosphere was electric, incredible, profound.
As one Jean Chretien-era cabinet member later said to me: “It was like he was Jesus Christ.” Bouchard embraced his burden and made himself a martyr for the separatist cause.
The federalist side started to lose. The separatist side started to win. On the night of the referendum, Canada avoided disaster by just 50,000 votes. The final vote was 50.58 per cent to 49.42 per cent. It was a shock to many that Canada had come that close to destruction.
All that saved Canada, many feel, was U.S. President Bill Clinton’s statement at the dedication of the new American embassy in Ottawa that same month. He called for “a strong and united Canada.” That turned the tide.
Many Octobers later, another U.S. president is (like Clinton) trying to find a way to avoid defeat. And (like Bouchard) he’s perhaps wondering whether a potentially fatal microbe could become his best political ally.
For Donald Trump, now in the grip of a virus that he once dismissed, it’s the ultimate paradox: the very thing that has destroyed America’s economy, and shredded his electoral prospects, may well be the thing that re-elects him.
Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis doesn’t improve his chances simply because of sympathy. It improves his chances because the entire Democratic Party strategy – to make the election a referendum on Trump – now lays on the floor, discarded.
Attack ads, stopped. Tough speeches, rewritten. War rooms, told to stand down. Everything that Joe Biden and his party had planned to do – to go after Trump, relentlessly – they can’t now do.
Bouchard is unlikely to be known to Trump. But, as he reflects in his room at a military hospital in Maryland, he might be well advised to consider the separatist leader’s strategy.
Picture Trump at the window in his hospital room, light streaming in, as he waves to the throngs on the street below. Picture him recording emotional fireside-style talks about the need to come together and support each other to defeat a common enemy.
Picture him leaving the hospital, walking to a perfectly-lit podium – waving off help or a wheelchair – and giving the speech of his lifetime, one to call the nation together, one to rally the American people. And to defeat the virus, as he had.
COVID-19 could kill Donald Trump, it’s true.
But, this fateful October, it could also give him – and his campaign – renewed life.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.
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