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William Johnson: A visionary, Jacques Parizeau was ready to pay any price

The great aristocrat understood that to attempt secession on a flimsy mandate would precipitate Canada into chaos, perhaps even civil war. He was not deterred.

Jacques Parizeau passed away, and a new star was born in Quebec’s firmament.

During his entire political life, he was a figure of controversy. Until 1988 when he won the leadership of a broken Parti Québécois, he was on the party’s radical fringe, losing out in strategic debates to René Lévesque. During his tenure as premier, he proposed to separate Quebec unilaterally from Canada on the strength of the barest majority vote in a referendum on a trick question that was forced upon him by Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. After his resignation as premier when he failed to gain the majority, he proved a constant thorn in the flesh and brain of all of his successors, playing the role that in French is called “the mother-in-law.”

Jacques Parizeau, former Quebec premier and sovereigntist leader, dead at 84

MONTREAL — Jacques Parizeau, the blunt-talking sovereigntist premier whose strategic cunning came close to ripping Quebec out of Canada, has died. He was 84.</p>
<p>His spouse, Lisette Lapointe, announced his death Monday night on her Facebook page.</p>
<p>“Immense grief tonight,” Lapointe said.</p>
<p>“The man of my life has gone….He was surrounded by love. After a titanic fight, hospitalized for five months, facing challenges one after the other with extraordinary courage and determination, he passed away…We are devastated.</p>
<p>“We love him and will love him forever.”</p>
<p>The blustery, mustachioed Parizeau was premier during the 1995 provincial referendum which saw the federalist No side defeat sovereigntists by a whisker after a bitter campaign.</p>
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But now he has passed into history. The Latin saying: “say nothing about the dead unless it be favourable,” now applies. So Parizeau has experienced apotheosis by our political class. Even former opponents, federalists or separatists, expressed nothing but admiration. He’s now universally praised as “un homme d’état,” a great statesman. No one, it seems, recalls a darker side.

True, he was a great economist and, as advisor to Premiers Jean Lesage, Daniel Johnson Sr. and Jean-Jacques Bertrand, he was a key figure in the transformation of Quebec called the Quiet Revolution. Then, when the Parti Québécois came to power in 1976, he implemented many brilliant ideas and a few bad ones as Minister of Finance, Minister of Revenue and Minister of the Treasury Board.

But, as a political scientist, as a sociologist, Jacques Parizeau was dangerous. With the close-call referendum of 1995, he brought Quebec and all of Canada to within a few thousand votes of chaos.

What distinguished Parizeau from René Levesque was not merely his clear ideas and clear speech. The chief difference was that Lévesque recognized himself as bound by the constitution while Parizeau was the true revolutionary.

In the 1980 referendum, over Parizeau’s objections, Lévesque implicitly recognized the constitutional order by tying sovereignty inextricably to economic association. No sovereignty without association. This gave the rest of Canada a veto over sovereignty, if it refused the association.

In 1995, it was entirely different, as Parizeau explained in a CPAC televised interview on June 14, 2000: “The first great difference between 1980 and 1995 is that we were holding [in 1995] a referendum to achieve sovereignty, and not to negotiate it. There are still analysts who have not caught on to the fact that the difference between 1980 and 1995 is that, in 1995, we went for keeps. If we had won by 26,000 votes in the other direction, I was going for it, I would have done it.”

He wasn’t bluffing. The great aristocrat understood that to attempt secession on so flimsy a mandate would precipitate Canada into chaos, perhaps even civil war. But he was above being deterred from revolution. A visionary, he was ready to pay any price.

He never believed in association or a monetary union. He always assumed that a unilateral declaration of independence was the only way out. In a book published in 1997, Pour un Québec souverain, he revealed that he had planned to adopt a unilateral declaration of independence within days of the referendum, in order to gain the recognition of France. “I was pursuing a complicated diplomacy that was entirely aimed at a precise objective: to ensure that a sovereign Quebec was recognized as an independent country as soon as a referendum was won.”

He wrote in Le Devoir on Sept. 16, 1997: “It is strictly impossible to achieve the sovereignty of Quebec, as that of any country, without expressing the firm intention of resorting to a unilateral declaration of sovereignty.”

He argued that, in the British parliamentary system, Parliament is supreme. But that’s only true in the United Kingdom because it is a unitary state. In a federation, like Canada or the United States, no parliament is supreme, be it federal or provincial, but both are bound by a constitutional order that is interpreted, in case of conflict, by an independent judiciary.

Here was his reasoning, in a speech of June 6, 2009: “How must we proceed to achieve the independence of Quebec? There are three ways for Quebec, as for all the countries in the world. The three ways: violence, or a vote by the legislature, or a referendum. There is no other way!”

He himself favoured the second alternative: winning a majority of the seats in general elections and then adopting a declaration of independence at the National Assembly. This was the PQ program during its first electoral test in 1970. But, after two crushing defeats in 1970 and 1973, Lévesque switched at the 1974 party convention to the proposal put forward by his canny strategist Claude Morin: the elections would be fought on a platform of good government rather than independence, and the issue of secession would be settled separately after victory by a referendum. On this policy the PQ ran and won in 1976.

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But Parizeau had been opposed, as he recalled in 2009: “There is no reason to be ashamed of saying, “We think that an élection référendaire is good enough. There are two theses which have confronted each other for a long time now. To tell you the truth, at the 1974 convention, 35 years ago, I had the honour to lead those who thought that, since Quebec had joined Confederation by a vote of its elected representatives, it could also leave by a vote of its elected representatives.”

In 2004, Parizeau came out publicly for “élections référendaires” in which the PQ ran on a platform of declaring independence if it won the merest majority of seats. “The proposed strategy has the immense advantage of freeing Quebec from the corridor where Ottawa wanted to park us. The Clarity Act becomes meaningless. It is the election which grants the mandate [for independence].”

Was that statesmanlike? It’s a question worth asking before he is canonized.

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