Across the political spectrum, tributes are pouring in for the late Jacques Parizeau, the former Quebec premier best remembered as head of the independence movement in the 1995 referendum. He led the “yes” option to a very narrow defeat in what is widely seen as one of the most important events in Quebec politics.
That so many political leaders put aside their convictions to pay homage to Parizeau is a testimony to the degree of civility and mutual respect among Canada’s political class in times of mourning. In much of the mainstream media, it often appears as though federalist and sovereigntist politicians are perpetually at odds. But when the cameras are turned off, there is much amity that transcends partisan lines, even when friendships are tested by divisive debates.
At present, the sovereignty movement is particularly stagnant and its more strident supporters can be very nostalgic about the Parizeau era. Hence, the late premier has achieved near iconic status among his followers, who describe him as an uncompromising champion of the cause and someone who speaks the truth about Canada.
To be truthful, though, I was not a fan of Parizeau, and he did not have a great number of admirers in the Quebec Jewish community. For that matter, he was fairly unpopular with most who identified with the province’s minority communities.
In such circles, when Parizeau’s name is evoked, the first thing that comes to mind is his post-referendum comment blaming the narrow defeat of sovereignty on “money and ethnic votes.” Some will say that he was merely making a mathematical observation. Yet, just preceding these remarks, uttered right after the announcement of the referendum results, he said, “We are going to stop talking about francophone Quebecers. Rather we’ll talk about ‘us’ and the 60 per cent of who we are that voted yes.”
The math behind the blame on ethnic voters seemed quite self-serving. Indeed, in a speech given in 1993, Parizeau said that sovereignty could be achieved without the votes of Quebec newcomers and minorities.
Following a most divisive referendum, when Quebecers were so badly in need of some statesmanship, Parizeau provided quite the opposite. In classic ethnic nationalist terms, he cast the debate over Quebec’s future as pitting “us” against “them.” The day after he made that infamous statement, his resignation as premier was welcomed by an important majority of Quebecers.
In later years, Parizeau proved quite unrepentant about his remarks on those ethnic votes. On more than one occasion, he said that he was referring specifically to the leaders of Quebec’s Jewish, Greek and Italian communities.
Some have suggested that in his reference to “money,” he was also thinking about Jews. They’re wrong. Parizeau was no anti-Semite. It is worth remembering that his first wife, the late Alice Poznanska, was interned at Bergen-Belsen.
With a passion for the arts and culture, both he and Poznanska enjoyed cordial relationships with several members of the Jewish community who shared this interest. For that reason, his Jewish friends naively hoped for better when it came to his referendum politics.
To his credit, in one of his final public interventions, Parizeau went against his political party when he condemned the proposed charter of values and its ban on religious symbols. Somewhat paradoxically he described the charter as divisive.
As one of the more influential 20th-century leaders of the independence movement, Parizeau will undoubtedly be seen as an important actor in Quebec history. But his eventual place in the province’s ongoing political saga will likely depend upon the movement’s future success or failure. Until such time, all the praise we’ll hear in the coming weeks cannot dismiss the fact that Jacques Parizeau was a very polarizing figure.
Jack Jedwab is president of the Association for Canadian Studies. During the 1995 October referendum, he was executive director of the Quebec region of Canadian Jewish Congress.