Jacques Parizeau Remembered by a Parliamentary Contemporary

When the Quebec Legislature began its first post-election session in November of 1989, the first speaker was Jacques Parizeau. It was my first day there as an Equality Party Member, and he surprised me, by giving a very non-partisan address, almost the kind one would expect from someone like a Lieutenant-Governor. He was amiable and wide-ranging, and drew our attention to the painting above the Speaker, of an early sitting of the Lower Canada Parliament in 1793, when it was first decided that French would be allowed, entitled ‘The Language Question in Quebec’. He almost seemed to be hinting at an underlying reality: that the Legislature was on most days an oil painting masquerading as an action film, or a theatrical performance, in which he was looking forward to playing the role of a lifetime.

Throughout the five years that followed, he mostly continued to maintain this distant, de haut en bas, approach in both criticizing the Liberals and in dealing with his own colleagues. These latter referred to him in his absence as “Monsieur”, recalling a Bourbon heir to the throne, and not with great affection. The fiercest attacks on Robert Bourassa and his Ministers were not led by him, but came from the PQ House Leader, Guy Chevrette, and the Party Whip, Jacques Brassard, Member for Lac Saint-Jean, and the wittiest speaker in the House. Parizeau was slow and ponderous in Question Period, and was sometimes the worse for drink, but I soon learned that he was going through a difficult time, as his Polish-Canadian first wife was dying of cancer. When her funeral came, it was in a beautiful service at the E’glise Saint-Germain in Outremont, and seemed almost a state occasion. He was bowed down with visible grief. All kinds of notables were present; I observed that Camille Laurin had changed his hair dye to orange.

His usual pomposity was sometimes broken by displays of intense emotion. On June 13, 1990, the day that a bitterly disappointed Robert Bourassa had to announce the failure of the agreement’s ratification, Parizeau stood up from his desk, walked across the Assembly floor, and embraced him. He also declared immediately afterwards, “I or Bourassa will lead Quebec to sovereignty,” one of his countless failing predictions. But most of the time, he not only seemed like a professional actor, not that uncommon with all kinds of politicians, but more unusually, an actor amused and detached from his own performance. He was more than courteous and courtly to me and the three other Equality Party Members, paying us compliments and even giving occasional helpful tips on how to amplify a point we were making.

I was sometimes charmed. Months after the Meech failure, when everyone was emoting about some kind of future referendum, he had made a speech that started, “Les Que’be’cois ont un habitude d’e’chec.” I countered in my own following address by instead suggesting that a better term was ‘un habitude de paradoxe’, and expanded on that theme. After I finished, he walked over to me and told me, in English, that “while the views that you have expressed are obviously ones with which I cannot agree, I have never heard them given better expression in this House.” At a later time, when I asked Lise Bacon, then the Minister responsible for Quebec Hydro, why the latter could not provide the same kind of useful financial information readily made available by other provincial hydro-electric utilities, Parizeau slammed his desk and bellowed loudly in English, “Damned good question!” Who could fail to be warmed by these engaging gestures?

I could tell several other similar tales, probably caused in part by his wildly unrealistic hopes, not that he could ever win over the majority of Quebec anglos, but might at least reduce our blanket hostility and the effectiveness of our opposition. But Robert Libman and I, at least, were little moved. I always saw Parizeau as a man of impenetrable self-regard; certainly cultivated and polished, but living in a private bubble, quite dogmatically attached to the statist centralization he had studied at the London School of Economics, taught in his HEC courses, and implemented, in his earlier career as an upper-level civil servant. I hadn’t seen the results of this earlier activity as entirely benign, and separatism aside, I shuddered at the idea of him ever gaining a free hand to create his own kind of utopia. His amiable comparisons of himself with Pierre Trudeau scarcely reassured me. I thought both of them fitted the definition of an intellectual as a man who turns a personal neurosis into a national catastrophe.

He also had an unmatched flair for dropping verbal bricks, very frequently on the feet of members of his own party. My personal favourite, from back in the era of the first Referendum, was when he commented that a ‘Oui’ would win if it were held just after three a. m., when all the bars had closed, but would fail in the daytime. The one that permanently damaged his reputation was, of course, his angry attribution of the narrow 1995 Referendum defeat to ‘money and the ethnics’. However, while I don’t find it easy to be very fair in assessing Parizeau, I think he got too much odium for this particular comment. Parizeau had many failings, but I never thought he was any kind of racial bigot, even a closeted one.

In fact, the media seizure on this dark moment rather missed line always the point about what was really destructive about his way of imagining the world. While the conventional tributes now pouring in at his death seem to be largely of the de mortuis ni nisi bonum kind, even the more critical ones evade the manifest evidence that he was not so much a man with the failings of most politicians, but an immovable Platonist, almost a solipsist. He loved a vision of ‘Quebec’, but I don’t think he had a great deal of fondness for its actual people, not even for many French Canadians who think themselves ‘nationalist’ on a more prosaic level.

Parizeau was already almost forty years old when he decided to become a kind of political heretic in 1969, but thereafter remained an immovable one. He had some of the qualities commonly seen as those of Great Men, but Great Men stake all on grand projects, often leaving a great deal of wreckage behind them even when the projects succeed. When the projects fail, all that is left is the colourful and tragic biography of a supreme egoist. Parizeau may have recognized this; as that early comment about winning a referendum only if held when the bars were closed, perhaps it was his secret fear through the decades. The 1995 Referendum failure was his tragic finale, another moment of great theatre; not so tragic for everyone else.

PAH Seventh 2015 Article. Submitted to PAH June 2, 2015.

[Neil Cameron is a Montreal Writer and Historian, and a Quebec MNA 1989-1994.]

From Reputation to Celebrity in Half a Century

Exactly fifty years ago, in June of 1965, two men now almost unremembered each had a moment of ‘stellar’ importance, in two very different senses of that adjective. One was a former federal Canadian MP named Hector Dupuis, the other an American astronaut named Edward White.

Dupuis had started his federal political career in 1935 in in the now-forgotten Reconstruction Party, more arch-conservative than the R. B. Bennett Tories, which briefly drew a fairly substantial popular vote, but which soon faded. He was afterwards an undistinguished backbench Liberal MP , for the now extinct east-end Montreal riding of Sainte-Marie, An insurance broker and businessman, his main form of loyal service was probably as a writer of cheques to his party. He had been awarded an O.B.E., but his moment of fame came when he sent it back. He was outraged because the Queen, advised by Harold Wilson, had awarded M.B.E. decorations to the Beatles, whose astronomical overseas record sales were substantially improving the British balance of payments. Dupuis commented bitterly that “British royalty has put me on the same level as a bunch of vulgar numbskulls.” A few other British public figures joined in outraged returns.

Nine days earlier, Edward Higgins White, a USAF Lieutenant-Colonel and aeronautical engineer, had stepped from a Gemini space rocket to become the first American to walk in space, just three months after a Soviet cosmonaut had achieved this. Two years later, White and two of his fellow astronauts were killed in a test of the projected Apollo mission. Only 37, he was one of 17 astronauts who had died in such accidents, all posthumouly awarded a Congressional Medal.

The complaint of Dupuis today looks snobbish and comic, but in its time, many people were at least greatly surprised at the idea of giving a royal honour to a pop singing group. It was only beginning to dawn on them that the great sea change of 1965-1975 was not only going to be about baby boomer arrival, Vietnam War opposition, and cultural revolution; it was changing the public conceptions of fame, devaluing traditional concepts of hard-won reputation and exalting instant celebrity. The shift brought the end of military achievement in the two World Wars in establishing long-familiar hierarchies of prestige and respect for public figures.

In Britain, the newly-arrived Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, a civil service statistician in World War II, was a symbol of the new era. Labour’s most fondly-remembered leader, Clement Attlee, had fought at Gallipoli in World War I. Wilson’s Conservative predecessor, Harold Macmillan, had fought in that war on the Somme, and been badly wounded. Before him, Anthony Eden had been another decorated veteran of that war. He had been preceded by Winston Churchill, greatest of warriors, who died earlier in 1965.

In the U. S., Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Military Commander in WW II, had been succeeded as President by John Kennedy until his 1963 assassination; he had been a young torpedo boat commander in the Pacific theatre. In Canada, Lester Pearson had been a medical orderly and then pilot in World War I. John Diefenbaker had not had distinguished service in that war, but his Ministers of National Defence, a key Cabinet position in the 1960s, included George Pearkes, who had won the Victoria Cross in the First War, Doug Harkness, who had won the George Cross in the Second, and Gordon Churchill, who had fought in both wars.

The war veterans did not dominate politics purely out of respect for their past achievements, but because of the intensity of the post-1945 Cold War between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. Not just the U. S., but all the powers of the NATO alliance, including Canada, maintained large land, sea, and air forces. Men of military experience looked best-suited to direct these; most were far from bellicose, but cautiously determined to avoid any actions that might end in nuclear apocalypse. However, both the West and the Soviets engaged in constant exercises in threat and counter-threat, constantly modified by advancing war technology. Even the space programs, despite some gestures toward international co-operation, were inseparable from this overall militarization. Rocketry, after all, had started with the German World War II V-2s that had rained on London, and the later still larger space rockets fired from Cape Canaveral made the same advances that made possible nuclear-armed ICBMs.

But there was another aspect of the two decades of warrior political dominance, which overlapped with the dangerous adventures of the astronauts. Men as different as ageing English aristocrats like Eden and Macmillan and young USAF space pioneers like Neil Armstrong and Ed White had not only, like millions of others of their respective generations served in some branch of the military; they had done so with outstanding courage.

When James Boswell once asked Samuel Johnson if there was a virtue that should be given a highest standing, Johnson had immediately replied, “Courage – because it is the security of all the other virtues.” This principle can still be grasped intuitively, and it had its claims in peaceful politics. It applied to both the recognition of leaders in democratic societies and to individual dissenters in oppressive states. While some of the young always fail to understand this, it does not apply to the brazen but largely safe bellicosity of street or campus mobs Granted, even serious democratic politics is seldom a very brave affair; at worst it can be submission to various kinds of mass cowardice and childishness. But men tested in the fire at least inspire a ready initial confidence. Decorated veterans did not always make great or even good political leaders, but even those recalled for postwar failures, like Anthony Eden, could not be written off for easily-assumed failures of character; more for deficiencies in the skill with which they met political crises calling for different talents.

Today, Hector Dupuis still appears snobbish and ridiculous, although anyone who imagines that John Lennon, as well as being a gifted musician, was all that astute a critic of war and international relations merely indulges in a different kind of inverted snobbishness and superficiality. On the other hand, the relative faded fame of Ed White is more depressing to contemplate. It must especially be so for Marc Garneau, a sort of Canadian Coriolanus. The first Canadian to do a space walk, over thirty years ago, Garneau, like Ed White, combined distinguished military service with a scholarly background in engineering physics. Had the federal Liberals under Ste’phan Dion let him contest Outremont in 2006, he might have won it, and denied it as a federal launching pad for Tom Mulcair. Had Justin Trudeau not successfully exploited a FaceBook Nation of pop celebrity to gain the leadership of the Liberal Party, that party might now be able to confront Mulcair and Stephen Harper with a leader with reputation in the old sense. As it is, Mulcair is a capable man leading a party of eternal adolescence, while Justin Trudeau looks more like an eternal adolescent leading a once-impressive party that has lost its way. Stephen Harper may be no hero of war or space, but at least looks good in this company.

PAH Sixth 2015 Article. Submitted to PAH May 29, 2015.