The Private PARIZEAU
How history shaped the man who seeks Quebec independence
The image is slightly askew, not quite right for Jacques Parizeau. The professorial leader of the Parti Québécois, renowned for his public probity, is casually perched atop a stool, the long-legged variety usually found in dingy bistros. His trade mark tightly knotted tie is missing,
replaced by a bright silk cravat. And there is a broad grin beneath his bristling moustache as he follows the progress of a finger-snapping, heeltapping young woman who dances a flamenco in ever-tightening circles around him. More startling yet, the grin stays firmly in place when Parizeau, once described by his own wife as “the most secretive man” she had ever known, deftly fields irreverent questions about his daily life from an audience even younger than the dancer. He freely admits that he knows nothing of family budgets, rarely shops for his own groceries and never buys lottery tickets. He also lets slip the name he acquired on joining the Boy Scouts. It was, he says with a booming laugh, “Belette Vibrante”— Excited Weasel.
The revelation delighted Parizeau’s audience, a youthful crowd gathered last week at the Montreal studios of MusiquePlus, Quebec’s wildly popular rock video TV network, to lightly grill the PQ leader. When it was all over, the youngsters were pleased by the performance they had witnessed— but not as pleased as was Parizeau himself. As Quebec’s election campaign headed into the final
run to the Sept. 12 vote, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the man at the Péquiste helm was suddenly beginning to enjoy himself. A new, more relaxed PQ leader is emerging, one who is even prepared on occasion to puncture his own nearlegendary reputation as the epitome of upper-crust pomposity.
There is no great mystery about the reason why. “He’s exhilarated,” says Daniel Paille, PQ candidate in the suburban Montreal riding of Prévost and a close associate of Parizeau for the past 25 years. “He’s so close to the goal now that the real man behind the aloof public persona is finally beginning to show.” Parizeau, in short, has caught the scent of victory. With only days to go before the province’s voters go to the polls, there were precious few signs pointing to anything other than a comfortable win for Quebec’s separatists. Parizeau cleared what may well turn out to have been the final hurdle on that path last week when he emerged relatively unscathed from a televised encounter with Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson. While the Péquiste chieftain may not have won the widely viewed TV debate, he did not lose it either. And that consolidated the lead that the PQ has enjoyed in every public opinion poll since the campaign began on July 24 (a survey at week’s end showed the party with 49 per cent support, comfortably ahead of the Liberals with 42.6 per cent).
Canadians, as a result, face a disturbing prospect when the votes are counted next week. Barring a major shift in public sentiment between now and election day, the next government of Quebec will rest in the hands of an avowedly separatist party led by a staunch indépendantiste vigorously dedicated to the destruction of the country as it has existed since Confederation. To be sure, Quebec’s voters do not see the situation in that light. If the pollsters and the analysts are correct, the provincial electorate will vote for the Parti Québécois merely to choose a new government, not a new country. The question of independence will wait for another day, in the referendum that Parizeau has repeatedly promised will take place eight to 10 months after the election.
At the same time, however, Parizeau has been crystal clear in claiming that he intends to regard the election of the PQ as a mandate to trigger the move towards sovereignty—a process that includes, among other steps, attempts to open negotiations with Ottawa on the future transfer of powers as well as province-wide consultations to write a new Quebec constitution. “I have said it many times before and I will say it again,” Parizeau declared last week after the TV debate. “I am a sovereigntist before, during and after the election.” To buttress the point, he left open the possibility of future referendums should Quebec’s voters reject the separatist option once again.
Clearly, trying times lie ahead, not least because of the nature of the determined man who is likely to be Quebec’s next pre-
mier. “Make no mistake, it’s going to be rough whatever transpires,” warns Eric Kierans, retired from public life after two decades in government, including stints as a cabinet minister in both Ottawa and Quebec City. During his time in government, Kierans acquired an intimate knowledge of Parizeau and his methods. He is not encouraged by what he knows. “There was a time when Parizeau had a sound grasp of economics,” he says, “then his politics clouded his vision. Now, he’s someone with no sympathy at all for Canada. And as far as Quebec is concerned, the situation is troublesome. It seems certain that Parizeau is going to be elected, but it also seems just as certain that he is going to lose his referendum. So at the end of the day, what are we left with? A government in Quebec led by a disgruntled aristocrat. I can’t think of a better formula for problems.”
Parizeau has been a thorn in the side of federalists for a quarter of a century, ever since he took his now-famous train ride across the country, the event that he often refers to as his own personal Damascus. It was 1968 and Parizeau, at the time a 38year-old economic adviser to then-premier Daniel Johnson Sr., had been invited to deliver a paper on the future of Canada to a conference in Banff, Alta. Parizeau booked a compartment on Canadian Pacific’s Transcontinental, intending to spend the threeday journey composing his thoughts. But as the train rolled westward, he gradually concluded that Quebec and Canada were heading down an economic dead-end street. The remedy for Canada’s ills, Parizeau realized, lay in centralizing economic and political powers under the national government. But the solution for Quebec required a decentralization of powers to let the province flourish as a distinct society in its own right. In the end, he saw no way out of the impasse but the creation of two separate countries. “When I boarded the train at Windsor Station in Montreal, I was a federalist,” he has recounted many times. ‘When I got off the train in Banff, I was a separatist.” Parizeau has remained true to those principles ever since, a remarkable record of consistency given the vicissitudes through which Quebec nationalism has passed in the intervening years. For those who know Parizeau’s background, however, the man’s bulldog tenacity is not surprising. “Jacques comes by his credentials honestly,” says Claude Morin, who worked alongside Parizeau when both were key government technocrats in Jean Lesage’s Quiet Revolution government in the 1960s, and who later joined Parizeau as an influential member of René Lévesque’s first Parti Québécois cabinet in 1976. “He is a rigorous intellectual who comes from a long line of rigorous intellectuals.”
Parizeau was bom 64 years ago, on Aug. 9, 1930, the second of three sons of Gérard Parizeau and Germaine Biron. His greatgrandfather, Damase, acquired a fortune in the lumber business, founded Montreal’s
DIARY OF A CAMPAIGN
July 24: Premier Daniel Johnson calls a provincial election for Sept. 12.
July 27: Johnson and Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau argue over the cost of separation. Johnson says Quebec would lose $8 billion if it pulled out of cost-sharing programs with Ottawa. Parizeau puts the figure at no more than $281 million.
July 25 to 27:
Léger & Léger poll
PQ: 51.6 per cent Liberals: 42.7 per cent
Aug. 2: Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard enters the campaign and is promptly criticized for contradicting official PQ policy. Bouchard says he disagrees with PQ plans to pass a resolution in the National Assembly affirming the will of Quebecers to separate. Such affirmation, he adds, can only come through a referendum.
Aug. 5 to 9:
Léger & Léger poll
PQ: 49.4 per cent Liberals; 44 per cent
Aug. 10: Johnson’s warnings that a PQ government would mean economic ruin for Quebec are undercut by a Royal Bank of Canada economic forecast that calls for strong growth in Quebec in 1995—even if the PQ wins power.
Aug. 19 to 23:
Léger & Léger poll:
PQ: 49.1 per cent Liberals: 44.5 per cent
Aug. 29: Johnson and Parizeau square off in the first election debate between Quebec political leaders in 32 years. Both men score points with their own constituencies, but analysts say Johnson did not manage to overcome the PQ’s lead among voters.
Aug. 30 to Sept. 1:
Léger & Léger poll
PQ; 49 per cent Liberals: 42.6 per cent
Chamber of Commerce in 1887 and served for a time as a member of the provincial legislature. His grandfather, Telesphore, was a prominent Montreal surgeon who rose to become dean of the medical faculty at the University of Montreal. His father,
Gérard, built an empire in the insurance business,
founding a number of companies that were regrouped in 1972 into the giant holding company Sodarcan Inc. When Gérard died last January, at the age of 94, Sodarcan was the 17thlargest insurance broker in the world, an enterprise with annual revenues approaching $100 million, total premium volume of $1 billion and 1,400 employees. Jacques’s younger brother, Robert, is president and chairman of the board of Sodarcan.
Jacques himself, however, holds no shares in Sodarcan, the result of a dictate laid down by his father. There has never been an adequate public explanation of why Parizeau was frozen out of the family business. But it has given rise to persistent rumors, widely circulated among Quebec’s overlapping business and political elites, that Gérard’s second son is something of a black sheep in his family. Whatever the accuracy of the rumors, it is true that both Parizeau’s parents were not entirely cast in the conventional bourgeois mode of Outremont, the leafy enclave on Mount Royal’s northern slope that is the traditional home of Montreal’s French-speaking upper class.
Parizeau’s mother, Germaine, for example, worked tirelessly alongside noted social activist Thérèse Casgrain in Quebec’s
women’s rights movement. During the Second World War, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her volunteer activities on the home front. Similarly,
Gérard established a reputation outside of his business as a teacher and author. He taught history at the University of Montreal’s prestigious Ecole des hautes études commerciales, better known by its acronym HEC.
And he wrote five books, including a 1973 memoir entitled Joys and Sorrows of a Bourgeois Family. In that memoir, the elder Parizeau dropped a revealing hint about the early influences that shaped Jacques’s personality. ‘We had wanted [our sons] to be leaders,” he wrote. “And we did everything in our power to prepare them for that role.”
Like all good Outremont families of the period, the Parizeaus sent their boys to English kindergarten and English summer camp.
Unlike most of the francophone elite, however, Jacques and his brothers did not go to traditional classical college. They were sent instead to Outremont’s newly established
Collège Stanislas, largely to escape the clutches of the clerics who ran the classical colleges. On graduation, at the early age of 17, Jacques followed in his father’s footsteps and went to HEC, where he majored in economics. His most formative years, however, were spent in Europe, first in Paris at the Institut d’etudes politiques and then at the London School of Economics, where he earned a doctorate under the guidance of the renowned economist and Nobel laureate James Edward Meade.
To this day, Parizeau carries the indelible marks of his London sojourn. A self-confessed anglophile, he developed a taste for British tailoring, British cigarettes, Scotch whiskey and those fine Bordeaux wines that the British perversely insist on calling claret. Those habits remained with him until very recently, when his PQ handlers and his new wife, Lisette Lapointe, decided that his public image required a make-over in the interests of electability. The three-piece English pinstripes were abandoned, as were the cigarettes and—in public at least—the alcohol.
Parizeau, though, retains his yearning for most things English. “I adored London,” he told an interviewer recently, re-
calling how he came close to remaining permanently in the British capital until “a sense of moral debt” obliged him to return to HEC as an economics lecturer. Roland Parenteau, another of the Quiet Revolution’s bright young technocrats, vividly recalls teaching alongside Parizeau in the late 1950s.
“He was younger than most of us but he dressed like an older man, in the best British tradition,” says Parenteau, now retired. “The rest of us wore jeans and sweaters to class. Jacques always wore a suit and tie.”
There were other, more profound legacies, as Parizeau pointed out during a 1989 interview with Maclean’s. “When I came back to this country in 1955, it was to a very peculiar kind of Quebec, where there were inferiorities with respect to the Anglo-Saxon world,” he said. “Quebecers felt that they were not good enough when it came to business or technology. But coming from England, I did not feel inferior in any way and I could not give a damn about those worries.”
The remark is telling, an indication of at least one of the wellsprings that gave rise to the self-confidence that has always been both Parizeau’s main strength and, paradoxically, his principal drawback. “He can be overbearing to the point of arrogance,” says Tory Senator Roch Bolduc, yet another of the gifted young men who played such a large role in Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Despite his misgivings about Parizeau’s present role, Bolduc remembers him with fondness. “He was so
young, so eager, so full of himself,” says Bolduc. “He would always be rushing into cabinet meetings with the most incredible new discoveries, demanding to see the premier immediately. He was sharp as a tack, but the arrogance made him an easy target.”
For some, it also made him attractive. Parizeau’s first wife, the Polish-bom novelist Alice Poznanska, recalled in a memoir published shortly after her death in 1990 her first meeting with the man she would remain married to for 35 years and who would father their two children: Isabelle, now a 35-year-old Montreal lawyer, and Bernard, 36, a physician in the same city. “He was tall, very thin, very reserved, very British in his manner,” she wrote of the encounter that took place in 1955. “We spoke the same language but we did not agree about anything.” Despite the differences, however, the two were married six months after they met.
Alice Parizeau’s memoir, A Woman, lifts the corner of the veil on another aspect of her husband. It is a harrowing tale, written as the novelist died a slow
sovereigntist before, during and after the election’
death in the couple’s redbrick home on Avenue Robert in Outremont. Throughout the recollections, Parizeau is fondly referred to as “Jacek.” He is portrayed as a gentle, caring man, almost as stricken by his wife’s two-year battle with lung cancer as she is herself. Intriguingly, this private period overlaps with a time when the public Parizeau appeared to be in danger of losing his grip on the PQ leadership. He was under attack from many quarters, accused of repeated gaffes that cast both him and his party in a bad light. There were even moments, particularly after lunch, when Parizeau would show up for sessions of the National Assembly perilously close to inebriation.
The loving memoir is illuminating in another sense. It confounds some of the dark rumors that have occasionally dogged Parizeau’s career. During his years as one of the most powerful members of Lévesque’s government, when he was both finance minister as well as Treasury Board president, he acquired a reputation as a womanizer. The charge gained credence after the publication in 1981 of a book by Carole Devault, who played a double role as a police informant within the terrorist ranks of the Front de libération du Québec in the early 1970s. In Toute Ma Vérité, later published in English as The Informer: Confessions of an Ex-Terrorist, Devault claimed that she and Parizeau spent “days together as lovers in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto” after the two met around 1970. “He was older than me, and he was married,” Devault gushingly wrote. “But that did not seem important. He was so much more sophisticated, so much more experienced. And how I admired his intelligence, his knowledge of the world.” Parizeau’s only comment at the time: “I haven’t read the book.”
His wife’s lingering death deeply shook Parizeau, but friends have said he seems to be a
new man since he remarried in December, 1992. Parizeau’s second wife, Lisette, is an attractive 50-year-old divorced mother of two with an 8-yearold grandson. She is also a long-standing party activist, and even once considered running for office herself. By all accounts, she has not relinquished her political interests despite being married to the party’s boss. Within the PQ, rumors persist that an office in the building housing the premier’s headquarters awaits Lisette should Parizeau win the election, an indication of her influence on the leader. Another is the fact that when Parizeau was preparing last week for his TV debate with Johnson, it was Lisette he chose to provide him with last-minute advice, delivered over a long lunch on the day of the debate.
Like Parizeau, Johnson has a new wife, 47-year-old Suzanne Marcil, whom he married in August, 1993. She is a onetime manager of a ski resort who also ran her own marketing company and founded a regional chamber of commerce near Quebec City. Like Lisette Lapointe, Marcil is a divorced mother with two children, but the similarities stop there. While Lapointe has been likened to a Québécois version of Hillary Clinton, Marcil does not appear publicly to exercise much political influence.
Lapointe, in contrast, is very much in the picture in a political sense. She may well, in fact, be largely responsible for the new, more affable image of Parizeau that emerged during the campaign. The two first met in 1975 when Lisette was handling party media relations in Parizeau’s L’Assomption riding, northeast of Montreal. But the relationship did not grow serious until two years ago, after the death of Alice Parizeau and after Lisette’s divorce was finalized. It began in the characteristically straightforward manner that typifies virtually everything that Parizeau does. Having invited Lisette to dinner at a Montreal restaurant, ostensibly to discuss political matters, Parizeau suddenly leaned across the table. As Lisette recently told a Quebec magazine, 7 Jours: “He asked me, ‘Madame Lapointe, do you have a man in your life?’ ” A few months later, they were married.
Parizeau’s record as a civil servant and politician has been impressive, but decidedly mixed. When he was one of the Quiet Revolution’s technocrats, he played a key role in the nationalization of Quebec’s private electricity companies that led eventually to the creation of Hydro Quebec. During his time as Lévesque’s economics czar, he implemented a number of innovations, among the most important being the creation in 1979 of the Quebec Stock Savings Plan, which gave tax credits for local investing, provoking the sudden burgeoning of thousands of medium-sized businesses across the province.
At the same time, however, there were noteworthy failures. Among the most damaging for Quebec
taxpayers was his decision in 1979 to nationalize the province’s asbestos industry—just before the industry suffered a global collapse. Even more ominous as far as the future is concerned, he pursued a strongly interventionist government policy that helped to bring about a fivefold increase in the budgetary deficit along with a sixfold expansion of the provincial debt. By 1982, when the debt had ballooned to more than $3 billion, Parizeau finally fell out of favor with Lévesque. The premier left him as finance minister but stripped him of the presidency of the Treasury Board.
Lévesque and Parizeau had a final break in 1984 when the premier declared his intention to pursue what has become known as the “beau risque.” In deference to the electorate’s rejection of sovereignty-association in the
1980 referendum, Lévesque indicated that the goal of independence would be removed from the PQ electoral platform in favor of negotiating a new deal with Ottawa. Parizeau promptly quit, taking six other hardline separatist ministers with him.
Parizeau returned to his first love, teaching at HEC. And he remained there, out of the spotlight, until 1987. At that time, he joined a group of convinced separatists within the PQ, who forced the resignation of the party’s moderate nationalist leader, Pierre Marc Johnson, brother of the current premier and son of Parizeau’s old boss. In 1988, Parizeau inherited what seemed at the time to be a hopeless job, the leadership of the moribund, debt-ridden Parti Québécois. Against all odds and in the face of widespread skepticism, Parizeau rebuilt the party in his own image. He kept it alive by winning 29 seats in the last provincial election in 1989. Now, he may be poised on the brink of his greatest triumph. Within days, he could be installed as the next premier of Quebec—a prospect that certainly explains why Jacques Parizeau has been smiling a lot more than usual lately. □