and HUGH WINSOR
A hoaxer pretending to be the Canadian Prime Minister elicited a promise from the Queen that she would try to influence Quebec's referendum on proposals to break away from Canada.
Believing she was speaking to Jean Chretien, who is fighting to hold Canada together, the Queen held a 17-minute telephone conversation at Buckingham Palace in which she agreed to deliver a television address calling for national unity.
The hoax was perpetrated by Pierre Brassard, an impressionist and one of the presenters of Le Bleu Poudre, a satirical programme broadcast by CKOI FM in Montreal. Researchers for the show, which has about 250,000 listeners, taped the conversation at 5pm London time on Thursday and broadcast it several hours later.
Buckingham Palace confirmed last night that the Queen was taken in by Mr Brassard and said the matter had been reported to Mr Chretien's office in Ottowa and to the office of the Governor General, her representative in Canada. Officials would not say whether the report was accompanied by a complaint, although a spokeswoman described the incident as "irritating and regrettable".
During the conversation, Mr Brassard told the Queen he feared separatists would win the referendum but that an intervention by her may influence voters. He asked whether she would make a speech on national television, at which point the Queen sought the advice of someone she addressed as "Robert", thought to be Robert Fellowes, her private secretary. Returning to the phone, she asked for a copy of the speech and added: "I will probably be able to do something for you ... No problem, no, I can do that."
According to Pierre Arcand, the radio station's general manager, Mr Brassard, 29, repeatedly made jokes at the Queen's expense which she would not have understood. At one point, he said, Mr Brassard warned that there was a row in Quebec over whether the Queen's face should appear on $2 bills or on Canadian Tire money. Canadian Tire is a string of automotive shops known for giving customers vouchers called Canadian Tire money.
A tape of the conversation released by the station made no such references, but it did include flippant remarks by Mr Brassard, who asked about the Royal Family's plans to celebrate Halloe'en and suggested that the Queen should wear a hat.
Mr Brassard and his colleagues on Le Bleu Poudres are accomplished at taking in the high and mighty. In April this year, they got through to the Pope, again as Mr Chretien, on the pretext of wanting his support for a change in the Canadian constitution guaranteeing the right to life.
Brigitte Bardot is counted among his victims and, last month, he took in President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti, who promised "Prime Minister Chretien" to urge Haitians in Quebec to vote "no" in the referendum because Canada had donated large sums of money to help rebuild Port au Prince.
Mr Arcand said the hoax had been easily perpetrated and required just one telephone call to Buckingham Palace's main switchboard. Mr Brassard was passed around several offices, he said, but was eventually put through to the Queen, who conducted at least half the conversation in French.
The palace last night rejected his version, saying a number of calls were made preparing the ground for the conversation and a check was made to Mr Chretien's office. Officials in Ottowa said the Prime Minister was away campaigning, but they had no reason to doubt he was planning to talk to the Queen about Monday's referendum.
A palace spokeswoman said: "We regard the incident as irritating and regrettable, but the Queen endeavours to be accessible to her ministers in the realm and the downside is that incidents like this may occur from time to time."
She refused to comment on whether it was appropriate for the monarch to become involved in campaigning for a referendum in a Commonwealth country. But Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert and reader in government at Oxford University, said there would have been nothing unconstitutional about an intervention, provided it was made on the advice of the Prime Minister which she believed it was.
There was concern among some MPs last night over how the Queen was put in such an embarrassing situation. David Shaw, Tory MP for Dover, said: "Someone's head should roll in Buckingham Palace. It is a classic piece of British incompetence."
Mr Brassard has since apologised to the palace.
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