A REPUTATION TO UPHOLD
When the former leader of the defunct Action démocratique du Québec woke up three weeks ago to find his old party’s name in the news, in connection with a funding scandal, Dumont took to the airwaves to give his version of events and defend his honour.
The fact he hosts his own talk show on the TVA network helped him confront accusations that his party had benefited from an illegal funding system in which donors were reimbursed for their contributions by outside business interests. Not everyone has such a luxury. The possibility of having one’s reputation besmirched is a fact of life for politicians, and it can pop up when they least expect it.
And Canadian and Quebec history are riddled with examples, big and small.
Last month’s incident involving former Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair and Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Jacques Duchesneau is a classic case, in which two titans choose to settle their differences by boxing a few rounds in the courts.
You could argue Boisclair’s past haunts him still and that Duchesneau’s attack was unprovoked, but it made headlines, elevating the CAQ out of the doldrums the party had been mired in for months.
“I have been dragged through the mud because of no-holdsbarred partisan politics,” an emotional Boisclair said on Sept. 29, reading a prepared statement to the media four days after Duchesneau made his comments.
“Mr. Duchesneau’s attempt at making petty and dishonest connections in order to destroy my reputation is despicable.”
Duchesneau’s accusations were indeed heavy, and true to the Eliot Ness side of the former Montreal chief of police’s personality. Based on bits of testimony from the Charbonneau Commission, on Sept. 25 Duchesneau alleged a connection between Boisclair’s admitted past consumption of cocaine and the awarding of a government contract to restore Montreal’s St. James United Church.
He noted Boisclair, in his capacity as municipal affairs minister, signed off on the grant four days before the PQ lost the 2003 Quebec election. (Normally ministers hold off on making funding promises in the event the government loses power and their successors don’t agree with the spending.)
The $2.6 million grant went to entrepreneur Paul Sauvé, an old friend of Boisclair whose company had been tied to the Hells Angels.
Put t wo and t wo together, Duchesneau suggested to reporters outside the National Assembly.
“I am making the link between $2.6 million, someone associated with the Hells Angels and someone who consumed (cocaine) and who was making decisions,” Duchesneau said.
When word came that Boisclair was planning to sue Duchesneau, the former police chief remained defiant.
“I am keeping my right to ask questions,” he said Sept. 26, after Boisclair warned him to watch it. “We want to obtain answers.”
But a few days after Boisclair’s Sept. 29 statement denying all the allegations and his decision to leave his job as Quebec’s delegate general to New York in order to fight for his honour back home, Duchesneau quietly dropped the cocaine references while sticking to the rest of the story.
He, too, turned to lawyers, reading his own carefully worded statement, insisting it was not his intention to act maliciously or to tarnish Boisclair’s reputation.
Like Boisclair, he refused to take questions.
Where the case goes is anybody’s guess. The CAQ has yet to receive documents making the defamation case formal.
But analysts agree Boisclair managed to pick up considerable public sympathy — perhaps because Duchesneau went a bit too far in his accusations.
“I have often expressed my admiration for this man,” well-respected legal affairs columnist Yves Boisvert wrote in La Presse a few days after the story blew up. “But this time he was frankly disgraceful.
“Short of proof, this is the kind of cheap politics which they (in the CAQ) promised not to do.”
Pundits have argued the PQ may actually benefit from the controversy, because a lawsuit would effectively muzzle what Duchesneau and CAQ leader François Legault can say about Boisclair.
On Oct. 6, La Presse reported Duchesneau would not seek re-election, a statement he has refused to confirm or deny.
While the Boisclair-Duchesneau case will be closely followed, it is not the only sensational clash over who said what about whom in recent memory.
For the record, the courts define defamation as a statement that has the tendency to injure the reputation of an- other person. The statement can be oral or written. Indeed, one of the most renowned cases in recent Quebec history was a written matter.
In 1993, Montreal investment counsellor Richard Lafferty sent a confidential newsletter to 275 of his clients in which he compared sovereignist leaders Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard to Adolf Hitler.
Parizeau and Bouchard sued for defamation, with the case dragging on in the courts for years.
The two initially won their suit in 2000, with a court awarding them each $20,000 in damages — an amount that was increased to $100,000 in 2003 by the Quebec Court of Appeal.
The legal wrangling lasted beyond Lafferty’s death in 2003, at age 80. In 2005, just days before the case was scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada, which had granted Lafferty’s family leave to appeal, it was settled out of court after Parizeau and Bouchard proposed a settlement.
Another recent example: in 2002, Thomas Mulcair, the present leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party but then a Liberal MNA for the riding of Chomedey, was sued for calling former PQ cabinet minister Yves Duhaime a “Péquiste whore” whom he couldn’t wait to see in jail.
The name-calling, which took place after the taping of a television talk show, fol-
“When you don’t respond, the one attacking at some point
has no other ammunition.”
UQÀM PROFESSOR BERNARD MOTULSKY
lowed reports that Duhaime leveraged his friendship with then-premier Bernard Landry to land a $180,000 lobbying contract.
In 2005, the courts ordered Mulcair to pay Duhaime $95,000 in damages for def- amation.
Later, Mulcair would concede that it wasn’t his finest moment in politics.
But every case is different, and the politician who goes down the road of the courts needs to be patient.
According to Mark Bantey, a Montreal defamation and media lawyer whose clients include The Gazette, and who has been involved in many such lawsuits, it can take up to three years to get a case to trial. Add another two or three years at the court of appeal, and a year or two more at the Supreme Court. So why bother? “People feel it’s their only option,” Bantey said in an interview.
“They need the court to intervene to re-establish their good reputation, especially if the defendant is not prepared to apologize publicly.
“Sometimes that’s their only choice. They get a judgment that says the defendant unnecessarily harmed their reputation, and they use the judgment as vindication.”
But Bantey, who defended Lafferty and his estate in his long fight with Parizeau and Bouchard, notes nobody ever gets complete satisfaction in such matters.
The Supreme Court of Canada has reinforced that point. In one famous defamation case, Hill vs. the Church of Scientology (Toronto, 1995), the court stated: “A reputation tarnished by libel can seldom regain its former lustre.
“A defamatory statement can seep into the crevasses of the subconscious and lurk there ever ready to spring forth and spread its cancerous evil.
“The unfortunate impression left by a libel may last a lifetime. Seldom does the defamed person have the opportunity of replying and correcting the record in a manner that will truly remedy the situation.”
Which leads us back to the court of public opinion, and how some politicians handle such attacks on their image.
If you ask Bernard Motulsky, who teaches communications and marketing at the Université du Québec à Montréal, there is something to be said for doing very little or even nothing when attacked.
“The simple fact of answering back reminds people of the attack we were subject to,” Motulsky said in an interview. “You maintain the polemic and you ensure people will continue talking about you.
“When you don’t respond, the one attacking at some point has no other ammunition. And the public does not appreciate someone harping on endlessly.
“So you wind up with a difficult period to live through, but it lasts a shorter time.”
Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Jacques Duchesneau alleged a connection last month between former Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair’s admitted past cocaine use and the awarding of a government contract.
Four days after Duchesneau’s comments, Boisclair (pictured in 2007) said: “Mr. Duchesneau’s attempt at making petty and dishonest connections in order to destroy my reputation is despicable.” He announced his intention to sue Duchesneau and the CAQ.
Lucien Bouchard, above, and Jacques Parizeau, top right, sued Richard Lafferty after the Montreal investment counsellor compared the sovereignist leaders to Hitler. The defamation case was in and out of courts for more than a decade, continuing beyond Lafferty’s death.