I had to take a few minutes to reflect on the life and times of Jacques Parizeau when he died last month. I couldn’t help thinking about how his brilliance was matched by how seemingly bizarre he was.
While Parizeau was very much part of a small minority of establishment Québécois families with money and prestige, he was nevertheless a star recruit for the embryonic Parti Québécois (PQ), the separatist party deeply devoted to all left wing causes. While his absolute command of English, and his strong British accent, would seem to have made him the most reluctant of separatists, he was, in fact, the least reluctant of all.
In the early 1970s, just after the October Crisis, PQ leader René Lévesque avoided the words “separatist,” “separatism” and “separate” like the plague. He was afraid they would scare people. He actually preferred the term “sovereignty-association” with Canada. As Lévesque and most other prominent péquistes twisted themselves into political knots in their determination to sugar coat their nationalist message, Parizeau refused to.
Parizeau not only blurted out words like “separatist” whenever he could, he would never miss an opportunity to add that he didn’t agree with Lévesque’s soft-sell approach. Parizeau had that kind of ego and that kind of standing. He could so openly, so publicly call out his leader on a paramount policy question.
If he wasn’t so smart, you might have thought he was a nut bar. But he was so smart that you could only admire his persona, even his pomposity. A PhD graduate from the London School of Economics, Parizeau’s brain was hall-of-fame.
In the 1960s, as a public servant, Parizeau was at the forefront in changing Quebec. And, when we talk about changing Quebec then in its Quiet Revolution, we are talking about changing the fabric of Quebec society forever. Parizeau was the architect en chef: a truly worthy historic figure.
He will, of course, also be remembered for his “money and ethnic” remarks on referendum night in 1995, and there is no question it will always look bad.
I was a bit more sympathetic than most and gave him credit for speaking the unspeakable truth that French-speaking Quebecers voted almost 62 per cent in favour of a separate Quebec. But, Parizeau not only spoke the unspeakable, he did it in such a crude and ugly way. He was too smart to not know the impact. He didn’t care.
The next day, he resigned as premier of Quebec. He didn’t even try to minimize his remarks and try to hang in there with his majority government. He took full responsibility for what he said. He also answered for losing the referendum. Leaving politics less than 24 hours later was a model of accountability.
When I learned of his death, one story, in particular, came back to me. It was how Parizeau changed the press gallery in the Quebec National Assembly. That change, too, was forever.
It was in 1976 when the gallery decided English would no longer be an officially recognized language during news conferences. That meant English radio and television reporters could only ask their questions after the French questions were exhausted and after the French reporters had left the room.
One day, there was an afternoon news conference with Parizeau who was then finance minister. The room had mostly cleared and English was being spoken when Parizeau suddenly and deliberately looked at his watch. He then announced, to only a handful of English reporters, that because the stock market had just closed, he could tell us that the Quebec government was nationalizing the asbestos industry in Quebec. No small stuff.
After he was done, we all rushed to file our stories. When the old Canadian Press wire machine gave out that hold-the-presses bulletin ring, the story about the asbestos industry being nationalized was in English only. When the French reporters heard the bulletin ring, they rushed over and couldn’t believe what had happened right under their noses.
Our French-speaking colleges couldn’t believe Parizeau would embarrass and humiliate them with such an important story in English only. Once again, he had standards that surpassed the politically correct thing to do.
And never again did French speaking reporters ever leave a National Assembly news conference before it ended.