Wells on Parizeau: 'Sovereignty's most formidable leader'

Maclean's Archives, August 2010: 'Alone in his party, he understood that secession would be a process, not an instant'


(CP Photo)

This column by Paul Wells first appeared in August 2010 on Parizeau’s 80th birthday:

Jacques Parizeau turned 80 years old on Monday. He is still such a polarizing figure that there may be no point trying to say anything about him.

The speech he gave on referendum night in 1995 (“Never forget that three-fifths of who we are voted Yes,” a line I always liked even less than the bit about money and ethnics) has made it easy ever since to dismiss him without further consideration.

But lately, when I think of him, it’s with a measure of fondness, and I didn’t even want him to succeed. It’s no wonder sovereignists, especially young ones who want politics to be about action and not just attitude, often adore him. The first magazine article I wrote in 1994, for Saturday Night‘s young new editor Ken Whyte, argued that Parizeau, not Lucien Bouchard, was the sovereignty movement’s most formidable leader. I’ve never seen reason to doubt that thesis.

Everyone remembers how Bouchard gave the Yes movement the burst of energy that brought it so close to 50 per cent of the vote. Fewer remember that he fought hard to stop the referendum from happening. If he had been premier, it never would have. If he had been Yes committee leader, he would never have handed the starring role to a rival who could make the difference, as Parizeau did when he let Bouchard lead the last half of the campaign.

For Parizeau, there was never any point to supporting sovereignty if it was only going to be a state of mind. For him, it was a process. At literally every moment when the democratic secession movement has actually threatened to produce a result, Parizeau has been near the centre of the picture. He gave the PQ economic credibility at the end of the 1960s. He pushed René Lévesque to hold the referendum in 1980, wanted a clearer question, split the party in two when, a few years later, Lévesque sought to shelve the option. When the process repeated after 1987, he was back, playing similar roles.

Related reading: Jacques Parizeau dead at 84

And at almost every moment during the decade when I was covering him regularly, between 1990 and 2000, it was simply a delight to spend time in his presence. He was almost always in an excellent mood. He was forever ready to explain why something had just happened, such as in the past few weeks, that made sovereignty both more necessary and more likely. Alone in his party, he understood that secession would be a process, not an instant. He knew a Yes vote in a referendum would begin the hard work, not mark its end, and that international law and the appreciation of political actors in the rest of Canada and the world would be not merely relevant, but crucial. He worked hard to lay the legal and institutional framework for the big event. The “grand jeu” he set in place was spotty and could not have worked, but at least he put in the effort. Pauline Marois has not the faintest clue how secession would actually happen, and I can see no evidence she ever found the question interesting.

I don’t want to make too much of this, but I have found myself wondering, for years now, what will become of Quebec’s secession movement when Parizeau’s contribution to Quebec’s public life ends. Actually, I don’t wonder. I think I know. Of course, there will still be sovereignists. But very few of them, and none in a prominent position, is his kind, the kind who see sovereignism as an imperative for action, not just an idle wish.

Anyone who wants his or her politics to be about something would do well to contemplate Jacques Parizeau’s example, taking some and leaving much. I hope he had a good birthday. Despite everything.

Related viewing: Wells and Hebert on 1995

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