I have a bad habit of waking up very early, but going to bed very late. It’s how I found myself up last night past midnight as news started breaking that former Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau had passed away after a lengthy illness. His wife, Lisette Lapointe announced it on her Facebook page and let social media do the rest.
I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading the shocked (and quite mixed, depending on your Twitter feed) reactions of Quebecers, only to wake up very early to another round of surprise and sadness as the crowd that went to bed before his death was announced, woke up to the news.
Jacques Parizeau was a passionate and principled man who believed in Quebec’s independence, but he was at times a divisive politician. Judging by the many hateful comments I saw last night, his “money and the ethnic vote” speech after the razor-thin Quebec independence referendum loss in 1995 will continue to haunt his legacy. It was an ungracious thing to say, and most importantly, inaccurate. To blame the Yes side’s loss to ethnics and money, was to conveniently ignore or minimize the reality of so many francophones who had also voted in favour of staying in Canada. It’s a bitter truth that a passionate man hoping for independence would have had a hard time swallowing that night of defeat. It was also insulting and hurtful to ethnic Quebecers who felt targeted by that hateful comment and to those who had voted Yes who did not feel such a divisive statement represented them.
But, people… Move on! The over-the-top indignation I’m seeing from some is getting on my nerves. Is that one sentence from 20 years ago the only thing some of you can remember from his entire political legacy? While I can completely understand why those comments have left a bad taste on so many people’s mouths over the years, some of the ugly reactions and comments at the news of his death I saw last night on social media were unbecoming and classless. One should be able to see the legacy of a Quebecer whose political convictions many did not share, and not limit it to one stupid incident.
Parizeau was so much more than just a rant, more than just one ugly moment in time. A formidable politician with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, and a self-described Anglophile, he was instrumental in the creation of Quebec’s pension plan and the nationalization of Hydro Quebec. He set in motion some of the social programs we benefit from today.
He was also, and many seem to forget that, the man who came out and passionately criticized Pauline Marois’ discriminatory and xenophobic Charter of Values when it was introduced by the PQ government. In a strongly worded column in le Journal de Montréal he criticized the PQ party for going way too far and allowing federalism to come out as the staunch supporter of minority rights. Whether politically motivated or not, his point of view most definitely contributed to the destruction and utter defeat of that Charter and the PQ government itself.
Whatever his legacy will be and whichever side of the sympathy spectrum you stand on today, he will certainly be remembered as someone who tirelessly worked towards Quebec’s independence and a man whose political influence far surpassed his years in office. He was well loved and respected by many who referred to him simply as “Monsieur” and he was admittedly reviled and distrusted by many allophones and Anglophones I know who are still hurt by his 1995 comments.
I’ve long forgiven Parizeau his “money and ethnic vote” remark because I don’t expect perfection from people and I don’t think it fair that someone’s entire political legacy and life should be judged by and reduced to one instance, one irrational outburst, one misguided comment. This is, after all, the same guy who also dismissively spoke of all Quebec voters as “lobsters in a pot”. He’s not the first or last brilliant man to underestimate the people who put him in power or be upset at the fact that they didn’t end up doing what he thought would be best.
The Tyranny of the Majority means that politicians don’t get the last ‘say’ and sovereignty movements don’t move along until enough people are behind the idea. As a numbers guy Parizeau probably wouldn’t have been happy with that, but he would have ultimately respected it.
Outspoken, passionate, highly educated and cultured, love him or hate him, he was a formidable man.
The one and only time I met Jacques Parizeau was about five years ago on Nuns’ Island, where he lived with his wife. I was at the local florist buying some flowers and Parizeau slowly walked up to stand in line for the cash right next to me. I did a subtle double take as I realized who was patiently also waiting to pay for his bouquet and just nodded in silent recognition. He was much frailer and older looking than I remembered from images years before. He was just an old man with an unsteady step waiting to pay for some flowers. He smiled and told me that my bouquet looked much better than his. I laughed. I wondered if he was buying flowers for his wife. I paid and went on my way.
An angry man blaming money and the ethnic vote for the loss of a dream. A soft-spoken man buying flowers. A numbers man who playfully replied “poets!” when asked by a journalist what Quebec needed most, a passionate man whose political views you shared or denounced. How you see someone and their legacy is – of course – coloured by how you see your world and whether you share their views.
Regardless of where your sympathies lie today, Jacques Parizeau will be remembered as a Quebecer who had a hand in shaping this province and almost made it a country. For some of you that’s a dream, for others it’s a nightmare. Parizeau was front and centre in both those realities. It’s no small legacy.