Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Remembering Parizeau: Marking Time and Politics

Jacques Parizeau's death marks an era of history. I never met the man and, to be honest, have what must be the exact opposite vision of Canada. I am not writing an obituary, or a commemoration; nor do I want to transform his death into a moment of national self-reflection. I feel for his family: they have lost someone they love and we should respect that. Parizeau's death means, as well, a great deal to those with whom he made common cause or who supported the idea of Quebec independence. What I have to say about Parizeau is not an insult. Instead, what I want to suggest is that Parizeau's own dynamics, his own ideas, and his own contradictions marked out an era in time and a debate, and one side of that debate. Parizeau, in other words, is being honoured for many things. Perhaps rightly so. What I want to address is what he and his era and politics represented.  It is, I want to suggest, the very contradictory tendencies that Parizeau represented that encapsulate an era.

First, Parizeau is being honoured by everyone as a builder of modern Quebec.  Here, Parizeau is honoured as a person who helped create the fiscal and policy infrastructure of the Quebec that has allowed the provincial state to act, effectively in many instances, in that province. Good, but why honour Parizeau in this way and would he be happy with this acknowledgement?  Honouring Parizeau as an architect of the state de-politicizes his message and, frankly, his politics. It is an odd form of honouring because it places Parizeau in a company he might not otherwise want to keep. Modern Quebec was built by a great many people. It is not simply attached to the independence project. Indeed, the same claim can be made about many federalist leaders. What this type of honouring does is actually to strip Parizeau of his controversy and his goal. It makes for a safe form of remembering, one that avoids the political conflicts he was so intimately attached to in his life and that, as a cabinet minister and Premier, he helped to create. I don't want to be too hard on people making these types of statements about Parizeau. I get it. We should reflect on the best of a person after they pass. I actually don't disagree with that. But, there is something inaccurate about trying to remember Parizeau without separatism. It is, as if, the goal and objectives for which he fought were edited from history by the very people honouring him.

Second, there is another issue that I feel quite bad raising that relates to politics but it won't be the last time I wonder such things as I put this blog together. English-language media and public figures have a particularly difficult time figuring out how to address Parizeau. This is different from René Lévesque, with whom English-language media had a love/hate relationship that turned mainly to love after his death. I recall someone even talking about Lévesque as a "great Canadian." Parizeau presents a different challenge because he was not well liked. There was no love to go with the hate. This is complicated for federalists (perhaps English-language federalists like myself) because Parizeau failed at his key goal. Canada exists today, and we have this conundrum of memory today, because Parizeau did not succeed. If he had, I would not be writing this blog. This raises questions about how we commemorate failure?

Parizeau, importantly, had his own answer. He argued two things. First, failure occurred because of "money and the ethnic vote." I listened, sadly, to Gilles Duceppe trying to apologize for this comment on the news the other night. I wish he hadn't because, well, the minute we start apologizing for prejudice ... that is the minute we are starting to have serious problems. I won't get into the substance of what Duceppe had to say, but it amounted to arguing that there was in fact an "ethnic vote" that was consciously put together to oppose separatism and that the ethnic vote leaders now admit this. In Canada we are all well aware of voting patterns. We study these all the time. We have them with regard to language, gender, class, ethnicity, region, etc. But, Duceppe was not making this point. He was coming very close to "blaming the victims." He did not use precisely these words but he came very close to arguing that Parizeau was right. The ethnic vote is to blame and the ethnic vote is something a bit different -- even if in an unspecified way -- from a Quebecer vote. How should we commemorate this way of thinking? Indeed, even to raise the question, as I have done, introduces a host of problems and uneasy feelings. Someone could accuse me of trying to make my own political hay. If that is you ... well ... sorry. I'm trying to focus on the analytic issue. How can we, should we, do we, remember things about people and politics of the past (even the recent past) that we don't really want to? They are part of history, part of the record, part of a person ... do we send them out? Do we recall them even when they seem to point to a disturbing and marginalizing cultural trends?

Parizeau's other answer was that the supporters of independence needed to ask a straight question. On this point, I have a world of respect for his philosophy because politically, a straight question was a non-starter. When asked clearly and directly "do you want to separate from Canada" Quebecers said "no" in overwhelming numbers.  The fact that Parizeau continually argued that independence forces should ask a straight question shows his commitment to transparency and democracy  ....

except ...   he didn't actually do that when he was in power. And, here is another odd contradictory characteristic. When he was out of power, Parizeau was a man of his principles. When he was in power, he wasn't. I listened to a CBC discussion the other night about how Parizeau was a man who did not accept "Plan B" (I can blog on what this actually means in another entry because "Plan B nationalism" actually has a specific meaning.)  Lévesque or Bouchard may have opted for some version of sovereignty-association, but not Parizeau, so this story went, he embraced outright independence. A line from the story went something like "for Parizeau, there was no Plan B."

But, there was ... and in both referenda. Parizeau was one of the leading cabinet ministers in the historic first PQ administration. He was a member of the cabinet that made up the first referendum question that asked Quebecers not about independence but about whether or not the government had a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association, with any results put before the electorate in a subsequent referendum.  The 1995 question was as follows:

Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

I don't mean to belabour the point, but neither of these propositions asks a direct question. In 1995, you have, in fact, to know something about other legislation that was passed by the National Assembly. The question is also, if I might offer my own views, not a little disingenuous.  I listed to a PQ supporter years ago, during the referendum, say "everyone knows what this means." This is not an exact quote. My memory is not that good but the substance of the discussion that ensued was as follows. The journalist (an Anglo) said "so it is a referendum on independence." The supporter said "no. It is about this question." "So," the journalist said, "you are not asking Quebecers for independence?" "Of course we are," was the response. "We are Pequistes." The question, in other words, seemed broad enough and had enough wiggle room that it could masquerade as more than one thing. It could be interpreted both as support for independence at the same time that it could be interpreted as a mandate to renew the relationship between Quebec and Canada within some form of federalism.

My point is both these specific questions and Parizeau's supposed refusal of Plan B. He refused it only when he was out of office. In office, and in practice, he embraced it. Even if he did not like it, his Quebec was a Quebec that never asked Quebecers directly if they wanted to be independent.

This is an interesting characteristic that permeates an era in Quebec political history and that is, ultimately, what I think it is important about it. This was an era in Quebec and in Canada, that talked continuously about independence. But, shied away from asking the question directly. Strong talk, strong words, were evident on all sides; but direct talk to the electorate ... when it really, really counted, for one reason or another at that point leaders shied away; even the most committed Plan A advocates (and, we can take Parizeau to be one) backed down and instead asked about Plan B. In effect, they soft sold their own goals.

Finally, we should note that there is much more that could be said but I want to return to the "money and the ethnic vote" comment. I don't want to belabour this comment; I really do not. Everyones says dumb things now and then and I am sure that Mr. Parizeau, if he could have had those words back, would not have said them. What is important here is not to tar Mr. Parizeau with a racist brush. I never knew the man but let us grant him honesty and integrity. My comment is cultural. The PQ was never able to succeed where other nationalisms have failed. All nationalisms, in one way or another, ultimately end up playing with fire because they are about divisions in society. No matter how much we spin it, ethnically-based nationalism divides the world up in ethnic and/or linguistic groups; it divides the world up into "us" (members of the nation) and "them" (others). The nation, in other words, cannot embrace everyone; otherwise, there would be no cause for separatism.

Quebec nationalists -- because of their history, because of their beliefs, because of their politics, because they were smart people -- tried as hard as anyone, I suspect, has ever tried to build a progressive and encompassing nationalism. And, they may have succeeded to a much greater extent than any other nationalism. But, failures mixed with their successes and this is what the "ethnic vote" comment signifies. It does not signify anything inherently evil lurking in Parizeau's character. It signifies, however, how difficult it is create distance between nationalism and prejudice.

This difficulty is complicated on the economic front by a transition that Parizeau was also part of: the transition in the independence movement from social democratic (words Lévesque liked) to neo-liberal. Parizeau supported the independence of  Quebec but one always had the suspicion that his Quebec was not a Scandinavian-type social democracy but a more-or-less capitalist country: Quebec, Inc. In some ways, that transition is now fully complete. The PQ is bleeding votes on its left to Quebec Solidaire and its key voting base seems increasingly rural. There may be many socialists and social democrats left in the PQ, but they do not rule the roost in a party that has turned increasingly to the right.

Parizeau's death is a moment of memory and sadness for his family. I hope they can celebrate his life and his love of them. Parizeau's death did not cause the end of an ear but, I suspect, it symbolizes one. The transitions through which Quebec and Canada have moved over the last generation and of which Parizeau were multiple, contradiction, and tension filled. That, it seems to me, is not Parizeau's legacy but the themes his history marks out.
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