The Quebec archives recently released the TV speech that Jacques Parizeau recorded in advance of the 1995 Referendum, intended for broadcast in the event of a triumph for the ‘Oui’. The speech was broadcast on French networks a couple of months ago, but only became available on the English ones at the start of April. It was well over half an hour long, and a full half of it was in English, largely an attempt to reassure Quebec anglos that their rights and political future would be made secure in the new ‘sovereign’ Quebec.
I watched the entire address, less because I thought it had much enduring importance than out of nostalgia. I always thought Parizeau was the most dangerous individual to rise in Canadian politics in the 20th century, but I never much disliked him personally. He was intelligent, cultivated, invariably courteous, candid to an amazing degree, and could be quite funny. I found these qualities gave him some charm, not of the superficial kind displayed by most professional politicians (outside of Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair), but coming out of his immense and unshakable self-confidence and intellectual conviction.
This charm I observed at close range did not much move Quebec’s general citizenry, or even some of his PQ colleagues. Many saw him as arrogant, never forgetting – as he never played down – that he was born to great wealth and privilege. His family had been multimillionaire potentates in banking and insurance for over a century, giving him an aura not counterbalanced by his radical absolutism [‘pour la souverainété tout court’) and his academic and bureaucratic distinctions. But he almost always seemed completely impervious to his cool reception by the general public, just as he was impervious to the storm he raised with his notorious, one time only, politically terminal. attribution of the Referendum defeat to ‘money and the ethnics’.
No trace of that bitterness could be heard in his planned victory speech, which was full of justice for all, malice toward none, hand outstretched to anglos, immigrants, and native peoples; saluting the memory of René Lévesque and the necessary Referendum assistance of Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont. Bouchard, who had risen a long way from his own humble Saguenay origins to the heights of Canadian federal politics through the patronage of Brian Mulroney, had indeed made the vote a very close-run thing. In that decade at least, he had the broad rapport with the wider francophone public that the professorial Parizeau lacked. But that rapport came partly from his underlying conservative caution and ambivalence about the whole meaning of ‘sovereignty’, and Parizeau’s planned victory speech was not at all candid about the entirely marginal role he intended to assign Bouchard in the new ‘sovereign’ Quebec.
That was fully revealed in the 2014 book by Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre, The Morning After, (Confessions post-référendaires), based on interviews with all the major Quebec and Federal players in the 1995 Referendum fight, including Parizeau, Bouchard and Dumont; Jean Chrétien, Daniel Johnson, Jean Charest, and Preston Manning. The authors simply asked all of them what they had intended to do if the ‘Oui’ side had won.
Since all the answers belong to the might-have-been, this book may not be much remembered, but it is a hair-raising read. It is also an instructive lesson in just how close a supremely egoistic political leader may take a democratic society, and even his quasi-confederates, to a revolutionary upheaval scarcely grasped by that society as it unfolds. Some leaders for the ‘Non’ sound complacently foolish; Jean Chrétien, for example, imagined he would have no difficulty continuing to be Prime Minister, apparently assuming that the Federal Liberal MPs of other provinces would continue to accept his leadership in the new era. On the ‘Oui’ side, the immovably utopian Parizeau and the far more conservative Bouchard would be unable to paper over their entirely different ideas of what a ‘Oui’ meant. Parizeau had detailed plans: officials designated to fly to all major foreign capitals to disseminate his version of what was happening ‘already had their plane tickets’. But he had no recognition at all of how improbable warm receptions for these arriving officials would be.
He had assigned Bouchard the position of ‘chief negotiator’ for the seceding Quebec, and Bouchard had his own somewhat unlikely hopes that he would merely be able to engage in some imaginative new Canadian constitutional arrangement. This was probably pretty much what most of the ‘Oui’ voters expected as well, but Parizeau had every intention of using the smallest of victory margins to take Quebec right out of Canada. The ‘year of negotiations’ promised in the planned victory speech, he made clear to the book authors, he intended to fail, surrounding Bouchard with his own trusted lieutenants. He might then leap at the right moment to a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Bouchard and Dumont spent the weeks immediately before the vote trying to figure out a way to stop him. They never found one. Bouchard had no governmental base, or even any kind of binding contract, by Referendum Day, he couldn’t even get Parizeau on the phone.
I watched the more openly visible part of this story unfold a year after participating in National Assembly debates and two committees on ‘sovereignty’, all proceeding largely out of the failure of Brian Mulroney’s Meech Lake Accord and the transient wave of intense nationalist emotion that swept the province immediately afterwards. Before, during, and after, I saw little evidence that many people were looking forward to marching into Parizeau’s utopia. One of the words Parizeau used to describe what he thought he would be bringing about was ‘serenity’. ‘Serenity’ and ‘serene’ were always favourite words of his, as they were of his onetime HEC student but less-than-warm admirer, Pauline Marois. Whenever I heard either of them use them, it always made me think of that grim joke: “When I die, I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not crying and screaming like the other people in his car as he drove it off the cliff.” Parizeau’s tout court ‘sovereignty’ always looked to me to have the same kind of ‘serenity’ as sleeping grandpa’s.
When I look at the American presidential election coming this year, I can’t help observing a similar kind of ‘serenity’ in Donald Trump and many of his followers. I can understand how many of them have become disgusted and disillusioned with the establishments and normal political machinery of both major parties, and it has some resemblance to the eternal frustration that marks Quebec politics. Trump is a far more vulgar, coarse, bombastic and clownish figure than the cultivated and polished Parizeau. But they have in common an occasional infirmity of the rich and privileged, which is a belief that they and only they can cut some political Gordian knot. Their conviction, their authenticity, which even enemies easily distinguish from the standard patter of their more conventional and professional rivals, can often win over coteries, and sometimes, as in Trump’s case, win over millions of people. But military hero, intellectual ideologue, or business tycoon, such men are all trying to produce theatre scripts giving full play to their egomania. A very few may accomplish some kind of ‘greatness’, but it is almost always of a diminishing and dangerous kind for everyone else.
[Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian.]
This article was originally published in The Prince Arthur Herald on April 19, 2016.