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.]

The Thwack of the Beaver’s Tail

Pauline Marois, in the thick of an election fight, has been unable to resist her fondness for talking complete nonsense. I especially liked her declaration that an election was no time to be talking about the future of Quebec, almost coincident with an assurance that it would soon be ‘sovereign, but without borders, exchanging tourists with British Columbia, and looking for a seat at the Bank of Canada. An enraged Bob Rae has commented that anyone claiming a Quebec departure from Canada would not cause ‘extraordinary pain’ was ‘simply lying’.

Both the Marois fog and Rae’s attempt to penetrate it reminded me of the days when I was a Quebec MNA in 1989-1994, the years of uproar that unfolded after the 1990 failure of the Meech Lake Accord, culminating in the 1994 election of the Jacques-Parizeau-led PQ, with the second Referendum following a year later. The most instructive part of this experience came to me as a voting member of the committee formed to hear evidence from various learned authorities on ‘the implications of Quebec sovereignty’, from January 1991 to January 1992. I read depositions from, and debated with, a long series of jurists, geographers, economists, and bond traders. I also wrote a lengthy minority report, called Imagining Sovereignty/Souveraineté d’Esprit, which I sent to all Members of the Quebec Legislature and all federal Members of Parliament.

We deliberated in a time in which Ontario was still dominant in the overall Canadian economy, and when Quebec was accustomed to many years of heavy Liberal or Progressive Conservative representation in the federal House of Commons. These conditions no longer apply, but even so, almost everything discussed has scarcely changed in twenty years. Since the PQ has found itself another colourful egomaniac in Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the Canadian mass media have been full of the same topics and speculations to which I diligently applied myself for a year.

Much detailed debate, past and present, has been composed of superfluous verbiage wrapped around two enduring confusions. The first is a hazily undefined difference between ‘sovereignty’ (widely assumed to be desirable) and ‘independence’ (not so much). The second is that whether somewhat deviously ‘sovereign’ or somewhat terrifyingly ‘independent’, an entirely new legal and constitutional definition of Quebec could be established by ‘self-determination’ alone, without regard to the response of the rest of Canada, or ‘ROCland’.

On our very first day, Bernard Landry, then not an MNA, but President of the PQ, actually argued that nothing very new was being contemplated, since both Ontario and Quebec had signed the 1988 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the U. S. I did not treat this claim with much respect, but also heard it countered by the other main witness of the first day, Gordon Ritchie, a senior Ottawa bureaucrat who had himself been one of the main negotiators of that very FTA. He startled both the Liberals and Péquistes on the committee with a comment worth reproducing at length:

We are talking about a political crisis of extraordinary proportions… a situation in which the rest of Canada will be obliged to reconstitute itself, It would have no national government, it would have no national institutions, it would have nine provincial governments… operating from entirely different points of view… And just in terms of the uncertainty of that, the economic and financial impact upon the creditworthiness of Canada and Quebec, upon the attractiveness of this region of the continent as a place to invest, the impact of this would be truly, truly, horrendous to even contemplate… it would be a very serious mistake to consider that somehow, we can take for granted, here in Quebec… that there will exist some wise and knowledgeable rest of Canada, which will see it as being in its interest to quickly and expeditiously reach agreement, to put in place almost exactly what we have just dismantled.  – Deposition before the Committee on the Implications of Quebec Sovereignty, July 28, 1992.

Ritchie let the cat out of the bag, or rather, a furious assaulted beaver, making a loud thwack of its tail. For the entirety of the ‘sovereignist’ movement, from the days of René Lévesque’s original proposal of ‘Sovereignty-Association’ through to Pierre-Karl Péladeau’s announcement that he intended to create a ‘republic of Quebec’ for his grandchildren, we have been told by political nationalists that they can demolish the existing province of Quebec and the existing Canadian state, without ceasing, in some strange attenuated way, to leave either an existing Canada or a future new ‘Sovereign ROCland’ rolling on much as usual.

That was surely the reason that, from 1970 to 1995, both the ‘associationist’ Lévesque and the ‘sovereignty straight’ Jacques Parizeau kept hoping that they could win over at least a substantial minority of non-francophone leading citizens, and a substantial, even if minority, proportion of non-francophone voters. Rare anglo PQ supporters have been welcomed with open arms, and anyone from the old anglo elite making friendly noises produced giddy exaltation. At a 1970s press conference in which Lévesque proudly displayed his acquisition of upper-crust Westmount anglo Kevin Drummond, almost a foot taller than he was, Lévesque gazed fondly upward at his prize, looking for all the world like a racehorse owner who had just acquired a handsome breeding stallion. But Drummond remained a freakish exception, as, two decades later, Guy Bertrand, Péquiste-turned-federalist-later-turned-Péquiste-again, was briefly for the opposing side.

Jacques Parizeau’s public reputation has never entirely recovered from his woeful ‘money and the ethnics’ explanation of the 1995 Referendum defeat. English-speaking Canada readily took this as evidence of unpardonable ‘racism’, not really one of Parizeau’s previous or subsequent faults. But Parizeau’s moment of bitterness was less an outburst of xenophobia than the mournful wail of a rejected suitor. “I will never give up on my anglos,” he had once declared in the early 1990s, but had finally been forced to do so.

All past PQ leaders had good reason for stressing the notion of an ‘inclusive’ political project, whatever private resentments some might have retained from the old order in Quebec. It was not only because of surviving, although weakening, sentimental francophone attachment to Canada. Even Parizeau, and certainly Lucien Bouchard, understood a more fundamental difficulty. A Quebec that entered into some kind of new and more remote constitutional arrangement with the rest of Canada needed internal English-speaking support, even if demographic changes might produce a future majority ‘Oui’ vote without it.

A ‘Sovereign Quebec’, however defined, that remained at least partially successful in maintaining a grumbling but more or less quiescent and productive anglo population, just might still keep its existing borders and still regard itself as remaining a sort of historical and geographic component of an enduring ‘Canada.’ But a Quebec in which a decisive referendum majority were to be won almost exclusively with francophone votes would not then enter a polite divorce, but inaugurate the horrendous kind of coast-to-coast upheaval warned of by Ritchie. That would not just mean a ‘difficult five years’, as Pauline Marois has put it. The Canada that has now existed for a century and a half would endure a mortal blow, with ‘Sovereign Quebec’ universally recognized as the parricide. What the most intelligent and tolerant nationalists realized a long time ago remains true now, whether or not a narrow ‘Yes’ referendum majority could some day be obtained. Canadian society, outside the fantasies of college lecture halls, is not much involved in ‘movement’; it has permanent concerns, like making a living, raising families, taking for granted geography and history, and avoiding dangerous and unnecessary leaps into the unknown. That is why most Canadians of whatever mother tongue mostly prefer the steady industry of the beaver to the stirring cry of the loon.

PAH Fourth 2014 Article

Professor Hare and Madame Tortoise

When Maurice Duplessis died in 1959, Pauline Marois was ten years old, living in a working-class and devoutly Catholic family. Jacques Parizeau, who came from one of the wealthiest families in Canada, already had his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and had been teaching at HEC for four years. He was then a federalist, remaining one for another decade, and spent most of that decade as an influential economic adviser in the Quiet Revolution. He would teach continuously at HEC from 1955 right up to 1976; Marois herself took a couple of courses from him in the early 1970s, on her way to an MBA.

Throughout his adult life, Parizeau has been above all an advocate of statist centralization, complacently immovable. Although Harold Laski, who had actually taught Pierre Trudeau at LSE in the 1940s, was dead by the time Parizeau got there, he seems to have formed his ideas in Laski’s long quasi-Marxist shadow. He often compared himself with Trudeau, whom he liked personally, once saying that the only difference between them was that Trudeau wanted ‘only one centre’, while Parizeau thought there should be two.

Even his own often-described 1969 conversion from federalism was one he imagined as being a consequence of his purely logical reasoning. He observed that Quebec was ‘never going to give back’ the governmental powers it had acquired in the 1960s, almost sounding as if he regretted the frustration this would cause all future would-be centralizing federalists. He would later often use this argument in trying to appeal to English-speaking Canadians, declaring that ‘Quebec had become a problem for Canada, as Canada had for Quebec’. Quitting his Finance Ministry post in the PQ government of the early 1980s as an opponent of the equivocal policies of Rene Levesque and Pierre-Marc Johnson, his subsequent 1985-95 decade as the leader of the temporarily small rump of fellow hardliners was less the climax of an ordinary career of political ambition and multiple offices – the necessary route for Pauline Marois – than because his utopian ‘technocrat’ convictions had make him a model of firm and inflexible purpose.

Marois began as a politically ambitious social worker, but by 1978, with an MBA from HEC now in hand, she briefly went ot work in Parizeau’s Finance Ministry office, but soon complained that he did not use her ‘to her full potential’. She made her own first failed bid for PQ leadership in 1985; in 1988, she attacked Parizeau’s leadership, among other things for his ‘archaic attitude towards women’, and threatening to quit the party, but Parizeau managed to reconcile her.

The 1989 election that brought both of them new seats also brought me to Quebec City as one of four Members of the anglo protest Equality Party. So I spent five years daily watching Parizeau serve as Chief of the Official Opposition, Marois sitting right next to him on the front bench. She was responsible for the official party platform, which at first led me to have an exaggerated notion of her unworldliness. The platform assured francophone federal civil servants that a Sovereign Quebec would simply rehire them all, and integrate them into the existing Quebec departments. paying for this with all the money saved by no longer sending any to Ottawa. This stunned me, but I later came to realize that Marois cheerfully talks and writes complete nonsense with bland confidence that it will have no effects in the real world, and not do her much harm.

Jacques Parizeau fascinated me. He had already become famous for dropping verbal bricks, as often falling on the toes of his own party as on anyone else’s. Probably the most remembered one was his comment of a decade earlier, that a ‘Oui’ would win a referendum if it were held at three a. m., after the bars had all closed, while failing in the daytime. He was still dropping them when I was in Quebec City, mainly because, even when most serious, he presented hopeful speculations as if they were pontifical certainties. When the Meech Lake Accord permanently failed in June of 1990, Parizeau immediately declared “I or Bourassa will lead Quebec to sovereignty,” and he has continued to predict such non-events ever since.

But he could also be impressive and even admirable. Despite his notorious emotional outburst on referendum night, I have never believed that Parizeau was racist or xenophobic. He made many speeches, not just before anglo audiences, but in the legislature, that were entirely generous and fair-minded in what they said about the English-speaking minority in Quebec. I once heard him give a long legislature address, summarizing what he saw as English Canada’s view of Meech Lake and other attempts at constitutional accord, which was one of the most intelligent and fair-minded accounts I ever encountered from anyone on that subject.

But he was no star in Question Period; it was House Leader Guy Chevrette and Party Whip Jacques Brassard who gave the Bourassa Liberals most cause for alarm. Parizeau, always ‘Monsieur’ to his not especially adoring colleagues, almost seemed like a stage actor, ‘playing’ his carefully-tailored role of affluent, anglophile, cultivated grand bourgeois. and not only very much a lifelong HEC doctrinaire, but a very ‘professorial’ professor. He was not quick-witted, but always a lucid, if unpersuasive reasoner, amiable, but visibly contemptuous of the ordinary game of politics. The 1995 referendum campaign finally brought his most intense emotions to the surface, moved to tears when joining in a PQ songfest. But he soon retreated to his usual sublime complacency and assurance of logical and ideological rectitude.

His desperate eventual alliance with Lucien Bouchard in the 1995 referendum provided a painful reminder of just how remote his professorial statism was from emotional nationalism. Nationalist crowds would greet Bouchard with cries of “On est avec toi, Lucien!”, inconceivable for him. He knew, well before dropping his ill-received ‘money and the ethnics’ line, that a referendum failure meant he had run his political course to its end. Not for him any late second coming in the manner of Bourassa, or continuance in a secondary role like Claude Ryan. Even if he had been willing to accept such a role in a post-Bouchard cabinet, he had no powerful PQ allies who would have made such a place for him.

Certainly Pauline Marois would not have been one. Tortoise-like, pushing past several temporary falls in fortunes, she has rolled on, her arguments of substance getting worse all the time, her determination and adaptability still carrying her forward. She will turn 65 at the end of March, probably little worried her chances of achieving a majority electoral victory will be much reduced by Parizeau’s recent attack on the ‘Charter of Values’, or even by his endorsement of the HEC report on Quebec’s dire future economic prospects. She will be almost exactly the same age he was when he unhappily ended his formal political career. Remaining a spectre at every PQ feast, rattling the chains of Quebec’s economically failing statist vision, trapped forever in his dogmatic and superannuated progressivism, it is now his fate to be largely ignored, even as he finally gets a couple of things profoundly right.

PAH Third 2014 Article