Richard Marceau, an 11th-generation Quebecker from a staunch Roman Catholic family and a former Bloc Québécois parliamentarian, is a Jew by choice.
He converted to Judaism in 2004 after a long process, but his spiritual odyssey began after he met a Toronto Jewish woman who opened “the door to a people, a nation, a culture and a religion that I grew to love.”
Marceau’s discovery of a faith and a community that are now an integral component of his identity is set out in his memoirs, A Quebec Jew: From Bloc Québécois MP to Jewish Activist (Editions du Marais). Originally published in French, the English-language edition is scheduled to be launched in Toronto on Feb. 16 at the Spoke Club, 600 King St. W., from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
A lawyer who currently works for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs as a senior adviser, Marceau wrote A Quebec Jew to dispel “misconceptions” French-Canadians hold about Jews.
“Ninety eight per cent of the Quebec Jewish community lives on the island of Montreal,” he explained. “Consequently, not many French Quebeckers have interacted with Jewish people and therefore hold many misconceptions about us Jews. I saw the need for a book on Jews, Judaism and Israel written by a Quebecker, for Quebeckers, using Quebec cultural references.”
Marceau used his own personal story to draw a portrait of Jewish history, culture and Israel and to tear down stereotypes about Jews.
He decided to write A Quebec Jew after attending sessions of the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which was convened to study the fraught issue of “reasonable accommodation” in the province.
“The majority of interveners were moderate, but some made it clear that to be a Quebecker, one needed to be a pure laine. I decided to tell my story to show that one can be a proud Quebecker and part of this fantastic, francophone, unique and distinct society while being a deeply committed Jew.”
A Quebec Jew has been well received. “So far, so good,” he noted, saying that major French-language newspapers in Quebec have covered it. “Now I’m working on a tour of Quebec to reach out to, and talk with, people who don’t have many opportunities to interact with Jews.”
Born in Charlesbourg, Que., on Aug. 25, 1970, Marceau is deeply rooted in Quebec, his French ancestors having arrived in the colony of New France in 1635. His father, after whom he is named, is a former civil servant and a practising Catholic. His late mother, Michelle, was a homemaker.
Educated by priests in Quebec City, Marceau graduated from law schools at Laval University and the University of Western Ontario. He also studied at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in France.
In 1997, at the age of 26, he was elected to the House of Commons. A sovereignist, he represented the Bloc Québécois in the riding of Charlesbourg. Re-elected in Charlesbourg-Jacques-Cartier in 2000 and 2004, he lost his seat in the 2006 federal election. For the next five years, Marceau worked for a pro-Israel lobby group, the Canada-Israel Committee.
An agnostic, he met his future wife, Lori Beckerman, a secular Jew and a fellow law student, while participating in an exchange program at the University of Western Ontario. Although they seemed to have little in common, they fell in love.
He had no intention of converting to Judaism when he was married, but eventually changed his mind. “I wanted to be part of this ancient religion that has given birth to Christianity and Islam, this philosophy that has attracted me by its emphasis on the family, helping one another and asking questions and reasoning.”
Marceau converted in a Reform ceremony, but after becoming much more observant and traditional, he went through an Orthodox conversion.
“My conversion was simply a coming home of sorts,” he said. “Many years before, a Jewish man I deeply respect told me I had a Jewish soul.”
He acknowledged that his father did not react well to his conversion.
“It was hard, and is still hard, for him. Put yourself in his shoes. How would you feel if one day your Jewish son told you he was converting to Christianity.”
To Marceau’s four siblings, his conversion was not really an issue, since they are fairly indifferent to religion.
“As for my former constituents, I received one letter of disapproval.”
Nonetheless, as he writes in A Quebec Jew, “becoming a Jew … meant becoming a member of a community that an important segment of Quebec society viewed with suspicion and undoubtedly ignorance.”
The Quebeckers to whom he refers do not know Jews, he observed. “They don’t know our exceptional contribution to Quebec. And they don’t know Israel.”
Antisemitism exists in Quebec, he said, but Quebec is not an antisemitic society.
Marceau, his wife and two teenaged sons, Michel and Olivier, live in Quebec, across the Ottawa River from the nation’s capital. “Lori and I wanted our children – who are fluently bilingual – to grow up in a French environment.”
A regular visitor to Israel, and a fluent Hebrew speaker, Marceau describes himself as “a pro-Palestinian Zionist.”
He explained: ”I do not believe that being pro-Israel means I cannot be pro-Palestinian. They are not mutually exclusive. I will not fall into the trap of seeing the situation there as a zero-sum game. I believe in the right of the Jewish people to have a state in their ancestral homeland, and I support the Palestinians’ legitimate national aspirations.”
Although he considers Israel as “a beacon of freedom, gender equality and democratic principles,” he is troubled by the current “ugly debate” in the Jewish state over the place of women and opposes the Orthodox monopoly over religious functions.
A separatist who remains dissatisfied with Quebec’s place in Canada, he says he would most likely vote yes should there be another referendum.
He claims the Bloc Québécois has always had a “fairly balanced” policy toward Israel, despite strong internal and external pressures to be much more critical of Israel.
“We have Gilles Duceppe to thank for that balanced position,” he noted in a reference to its former leader. “I expect his successor, Daniel Paille, with whom I have been to Israel, to maintain a similar position.”