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Jacques Parizeau’s tragic solitude

By: 
Bernard Rioux

June 11, 2015

Living, Jacques Parizeau was inconvenient; dead, he triumphs. As an icon, as the architect of a past long gone, he is no longer feared. He even inspires the admiration of many of his opponents, whether among federalists or those soft sovereigntists he despised.

Alive, and very much present until his last moments, he annoyed many when he recently described the PQ as a “smoking ruin”. (He had notably expressed opposition to the Charter of Values, as did other major sovereigntists leaders like Lucien Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe. His “ruin” comment came soon after the May 2014 general election.) Jean-François Lisée (his former adviser when Parizeau was Québec prime minister and a member of the brief Marois cabinet) deplored as excessively harsh his criticism of the PQ in a speech on 21 September 2014. Stéphane Bédard (interim PQ leader between Marois’ resignation and the election of PK Péladeau this May) called it demoralizing.

Parti Québecois

Parizeau always refused to be reduced to his past. He claimed unapologetically his right to speak his mind about current events. When some young, and not so young, PQ members of the National Assembly signed a letter asking him to shut up and trust them, he replied that he would never give up his right to speak. (At the time, he dared criticize the approach labeled “gouvernance souverainiste.” He approved when four PQ MNA’s left over a lack of commitment on independence). He still had so much to say.  

Because his central concern, as the one who never gave up, was to figure out how to rebuild the movement for sovereignty. He was appalled at the confusion generated by his own party, its endless hesitations, the refusal of the PQ leadership to actively prepare another appointment with History. He said it over and over again, the hesitations and lack of resolve of the PQ headquarters are responsible for the destructive disorientation which only resulted in building up the camp of abstention.

As a pragmatist and a man of action, he was chiefly concerned with bringing his party out of the rut. He didn’t spend much time trying to discover the historic roots of these ambiguities in the normal PQ discourse. Otherwise, he would have discovered the reasons for his own isolation and his tragic solitude. The Québec opportunistic business class, in its overwhelming majority, belongs to no country and, while it doesn’t mind receiving government largesse as often as possible, it has renounced any political independence project. This isolation (among the members of his own class, Parizeau defining himself with pride as “bourgeois”) had tragic consequences. The money given by the Québec State, by the people of Québec, to Québec inc. the capitalist class kept it and immediately used its new strength to support Canadian federalism as the best way to achieve its goals of further accumulation. Indeed, independence was defeated by “money” and greed.

(Parizeau famously attributed the defeat of 1995 to “money and ethnic votes”. The second item referring to how some linguistic and cultural communities had voted No at 90 per cent and more, while the majority French-Canadians (his Nous) had voter Yes at about 60 per cent (that was his consolation). This regression to a French-Canadian identity in his concession speech is what troubled many people who believed Québec should see itself as a new civic nation comprised of all the components of Québec society.

But it was also defeated by the nationalist leaders and the PQ political class. Governing the province became their obsession. In their hands, and their minds, it became a “sovereigntist governance,” a thin veil for an autonomism that didn’t dare say its true name. These nationalist elites didn’t hesitate to sacrifice their “option” while hiding their capitulation with endless rhetorical contortions. They in fact gave up the fight Parizeau never abandoned. Their reticence to make independence an election issue became an obsession. It gave federalists the role of reminding them, at every election campaign, that the issue of independence was still unresolved. Elections give a mandate to act, and we should have the courage to seek such a mandate, as he reminded us frequently.

Strategy

Jacques Parizeau was despondent to see that so many sovereigntists were “soft,” indecisive, lukewarm, and unable to act. But he was unwilling to recognize the reasons for that fact. The minority at the top uses sovereignty as a stepping stone to power. Only the popular majority can engage in this fight all the way. The sovereignty of the people is the only true foundation for the fight for independence. And one doesn’t call a people to fight for its future without also inviting it to define on its own the direction this future should take. The people must decide and its role should not be limited to answering with a Yes or a No a question asked by the nationalist political elite in power. Therefore, he lacked the key to move beyond the current dead end in which the PQ has led the movement for independence.

Parizeau was also a shrewd and bold strategist. He had prepared alliances with friendly governments. He had also mobilized funds to use in case of destabilizing attacks from federal institutions. He was insistent on the integrity and decisiveness that leaders of the independence movement needed to display. He could go as far as launching vast popular consultations, like the commissions on Québec’s future that took place in the lead up to the 1995 referendum.

But real power remained in the hands of the headquarters, with people recruited among ruling class nationalists. And these proved to be structurally incapable to meet the challenges he presented to them. The goal of independence is unattainable without strengthening, mobilizing and unifying popular classes around a transformative project for Québec society.

In that sense, Parizeau still belongs to the Parti Québécois, even if it doesn’t deserve it. Should we consider creating a new party? His answer was clear. He was proposing the rebuilding of the PQ as a pro-independence party, as the one party for the sovereigntists movement. He, like many others, saw Option Nationale as an instrument to fix the PQ. He believed that there had to be a party capable of uniting bosses lobbies and unions, of brining everyone together. In that way, he remained attached to the horizon of a class incapable of questioning an economic system increasingly disastrous for the planet, generating growing inequalities and concentrating wealth at the top of society.

The isolation of Pierre Karl Péladeau, who is considered Parizeau’s heir by some, in relation to his own class is in no way tragic, it is suspicious. After having benefited from many opportunities, most of the time funded by the public purse, he now sees his own wealth as a national asset. The way he defends his right to unfettered accumulation is described by some confused independentists as righteousness and determination. But it is the opposite of what could be the foundation of a popular mobilization. The complex history of the relationship between the nationalist leadership and the ruling class, now stuttering, takes the form of a misleading farce and could lead to even worse dead ends.

Jacques Parizeau was willing to endure the rejection of his own class and the cold shoulder from his own party, but he never abandoned hope and was always inviting us to keep moving forward towards independence. And that we will never forget!  

This is republished from Presse-toi à gauche, with translation and notes (in parentheses) by Benoit Renaud

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