25 years later: Remembering the Equality Party's stunning election
Published Wednesday, September 24, 2014 5:24PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, September 25, 2014 7:18AM EDT
Politicians are reminiscing 25 years after the day four members of the Equality Party were elected to the National Assembly in a bid to defend Anglophone rights.
It was a stunning political victory as Robert Libman, Gordon Atkinson, Neil Cameron and Richard Holden were elected on Sept. 25, 1989.
“I was this earnest kid trying to do my best,” said Libman, who at just 28 years old took on the role of Equality Party leader after feeling fed up Anglo rights were being trampled on.
“Instead of just packing and leaving Quebec like so many others did, I organized a political party – not to get elected, not to become a politician – but just to send a message to the government that our community is very fed up with what's going on,” he said.
He knew it was a long shot.
No matter how upset Anglos were with the Liberals, they almost always voted for them, because they were too afraid to split the vote and elect the Parti Quebecois.
The late 1980s were different, however.
The tipping point came when then-premier Robert Bourassa invoked the notwithstanding clause to prevent languages other than French from appearing on signs.
“Lo and behold that night all hell broke loose when we elected four of us,” said Libman.
He, along with Atkinson, Cameron and Holden were suddenly thrust into the limelight.
“I was shocked as anyone that we were elected,” recalled Libman. “I had trained to be an architect. I always wanted to be an architect. I had been practicing architecture for five years at the time and then all of a sudden I realized I would be putting that aside to go to Quebec City.”
Not only did they elect four MNAs, but they also came a close second in five other ridings.
Cameron remembers the pride he felt at the time.
“I had all kinds of great pleasures in life, but can you imagine how much fun it could be to stand up right after Jacques Parizeau and explain everything he was saying was wrong? I mean, do it politely and all that, but I think moments like that I must've been one of the most envied Anglos in Quebec. I wouldn't have changed it for anything,” he said with a laugh.
The Gazette political reporter Philip Authier said they actually fit in well at the National Assembly, being appointed to committees and earning the respect of their colleagues.
More importantly, for Anglos, they proved there were options.
“They were a daily reminder to Robert Bourassa that the English community exists and they could not be taken for granted,” said Authier.
Behind the scenes, however, there were problems; the young Libman had trouble managing his other MNAs.
“They were all kind of real mavericks and real strong characters in their own right. It's a small party but you have to have some kind of unity,” said Authier.
The biggest problem was their Westmount MNA, Richard Holden.
“To call him a loose cannon was an understatement,” recalled Cameron.
The party was against the Meech Lake accord, but Holden was a vocal supporter.
Ultimately, they kicked him out of the Equality Party.
Holden then approached the Liberals, who were not interested in him.
“The only other door to knock on was the PQ,” said Libman.
In one of the strangest floor crossings ever seen in Quebec, Jacques Parizeau would introduce Holden as the PQ MNA for Westmount.
“I mean let's face it, I'm way ahead of the thinking in English Quebec. English Quebec is close minded right now; they don't want to talk about the idea of sovereignty,” said Holden at the time.
“It rattled a lot of teacups in Westmount and his own brother stopped speaking to him because he was so angry,” said Authier.
Once Holden left the Equality Party, there were more troubles. Cameron and Atkinson grew weary of taking orders from a man who just turned 30.
Libman eventually quit the party. They never elected another MNA.
Libman is now making a political comeback – this time on the federal level. He is attempting to win the Liberal stronghold of Mount Royal for the Conservative Party of Canada.
Libman may be hoping to channel some of the energy from 1989, when against all odds, Anglos found new a voice.