Remembering Quebec’s Jacque Parizeau

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.

Parizeau was amiable and wide-ranging, and drew our attention to the painting above the Speaker. It was entitled “The Language Question in Quebec,” an early sitting of the Lower Canada Parliament in 1793, when it was first decided that French would be allowed in debate. 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.

De haut en bas approach
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.

Courteous and courtly
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 Quebecois ont un habitude d’echec.” 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?

A man of impenetrable self-regard
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, Equality Party Leader, 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.

Parizeau 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 the man, 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.

An immovable Platonist
In fact, the media seizure on this dark moment rather missed 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, in 1969, he decided to become a kind of political heretic. Thereafter, however, he 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 it were held when the bars closed attested to. 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.

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian who was elected to the Quebec National Assembly, 1989-1994. His reflections on Jacque Parizeau first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald.