Blessed exile

While Trudeau declines and Marchand falls, Gérard Pelletier has found sanctuary in Paris, the wisest, perhaps, of the Three Wise Men

Marci McDonald June 14 1976

Blessed exile

While Trudeau declines and Marchand falls, Gérard Pelletier has found sanctuary in Paris, the wisest, perhaps, of the Three Wise Men

Marci McDonald June 14 1976

Blessed exile

While Trudeau declines and Marchand falls, Gérard Pelletier has found sanctuary in Paris, the wisest, perhaps, of the Three Wise Men

Marci McDonald

On Parliament Hill, two little words called “Sky Shops” are rumbling through the murky Commons’ corridors with the ominous sweep of a mudslide, but this is another country. Here, as a soft grey Paris twilight settles over this magnificent mansion behind the high stone walls of the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, a photographer arranges Gérard and Alex Pelletier. He fans his tripod out over the priceless pastel Aubusson carpet of the grand salon where marquises and duchesses once bowed and rustled. His strobe light glints off the glittering ivory and gilt 18th-century paneling which curls upward in mad baroque abandon to embrace fat-cheeked pink cherubs frolicking in the frescoes above. He focuses on the two figures poised on Louis XV chairs in the centre of the room, but there is something vaguely wrong with this picture. Alex Pelletier’s simple grey suit is swamped in all this crystal and bronze doré shimmer. Behind her, her husband fidgets, dying for a cigarette. They stare up into the lens like trespassers who have just strayed into these reception rooms and been caught out guilty. All at once Pelletier breaks the unease, pulls out a Gitane, lights up and lets it dangle from his lower lip, shades of the long-forgotten La Presse editor. “It’s a bit overwhelming, this, isn’t it?” he chuckles softly.

For the ironies of life are not lost on Gérard Pelletier, a man of little small talk and no pretensions who has suddenly found himself here amid all the pomp and politesse, the endless splendor and exquisite rituals of the court of Giscard d’Estaing—a man who spent the last 10 years of his life in the desperate dream of trying to bind his native land together and now wakes up half a world away in this plush-lined selfexile he has chosen as ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to France.

His career has been plagued by contradictions. He was the journalist turned politician who could never again feel at ease with the press, the culture czar who loved the arts and tried to democratize them but in the end was vilified by the country’s artistic elite, the formidable intellect who came to be ostracized for his philosophies among his fellow intellectuals of Quebec. Too short, too uncharismatic, no stirring speechmaker, he was the very antithesis of the backslapping supersalesman, but he spent the better part of his political life taking to the road to peddle the Official Languages Act, the most difficult selling job of all. The cornerstones of biculturalism he piloted through parliament may have done more than any other legislation in the past three decades to change the face of Canada, and yet they may have done more, too, to cement the divisions within it that he so hoped to wipe out. In his own province he became a pariah, a symbol of the hated federal presence, and in the federal capital a symbol of the feared French threat. Along the way, the man who gave his entire political career in the service of federalism and bilingualism may have been its victim, a scapegoat in the official languages war. There are some who say that Gérard Pelletier left the Secretary of State’s portfolio by choice, exhausted; others who say that, as the Québécois too firmly identified with the issues that the Liberals like to blame for the 1972 election backlash, he was pushed. The only thing that was clear in the end was that he longed for his exit. When his old friend the Prime Minister offered him this safe passage last summer he did not hesitate. “This year or next year?” Trudeau asked, and Pelletier shot back, “This year.” “I wanted out,” he says. At the last, the man whose name was once on the tip of every newscaster’s tongue as the defender of the Company of Young Canadians, Opportunities for Youth, LIP and the dread bilingual menace had sunk to such a low profile that it took news of his resignation to remind half the country that Pelletier was still there.

When he slipped quietly out of Ottawa last fall, it was a neat decade after his arrival—almost 10 years to the day since that brave Friday in the fall of 1965 when he, Jean Marchand and Pierre Elliott Trudeau emerged from 24 hours closeted in a Montreal hotel suite to stand before the popping flashbulbs and announce that they were throwing in their lot with the federal Liberal party, all smiles and great expectations. The Three Wise Men pledged to

make their pilgrimage to Ottawa bearing the banner of Quebec, to stamp out separatism, to stand for one united Canada, to show that French-Canadian politics did not mean corrupt, pork-barreling, scandalridden politics. Now, 11 years later, almost eight years to the month since they swept into power on the green leather trenchcoat-tails of Trudeaumania, their fine federal dream stands frayed and shaky, their government rocked by a bitter pork-barrel-tainted scandal centred in the very heart of French Canadian politics, the country disillusioned and bitterly divided, the Three Wise Men in disarray. Trudeau, the bachelor messiah, has become one of the most despised politicians in Canada, his popularity at an all-time nadir, an overwhelming 49% of the last Gallup poll at odds with his actions. Marchand is a man depleted, in faltering health and faded power, relieved of his Transport portfolio after being charged with leaving the scene of an accident, then eased back into the hinterlands of Environment where his old fighting spirit resurfaces to make outrageous press pronouncements or deflect hints of scandal. Now, as fall-out from the Sky Shops caper continues to swirl around them and tinge even those in the highest places, there are some who say that Gérard Pelletier, the last of the Wise Men to come to Ottawa and the first to get out, may be the only one to emerge from it with his reputation untarnished, the wisest man of them all.

In the elegant beige grass-cloth expanse of his offices just across the street from the imperturbable chic of Christian and Baby Dior, Gérard Pelletier scans his appointment schedule. Mornings full of meetings, afternoons crammed with the infinite cordialities of courtesy calls, evenings awash in official receptions. “Do any of these have any meaning?” he asks an aide, boggling at the social bookings. Gérard Pelletier is not a man who has spent much of his life doing things without meaning, and there are those of his friends who were flabbergasted to hear of his accepting this ambassadorship where the intricate raffinements of cocktail party patter are de rigueur. Even Pelletier himself was taken aback with the proposition, the memory still fresh of those rare hours when he would find himself on Ottawa’s diplomatic circuit and turn to Alex to whisper, “Who would ever want to spend their life doing this?” In fact, he’d already made arrangements to go back as publisher of an ailing Montreal newspaper when Trudeau called to convince him that the job in Paris would merely be an extension of what he’d been doing in Ottawa. As soon as the news leaked out, cries of “Sinecure!” went up— to which he retorts by brandishing his appointment book. “If anybody thinks this is a sinecure,” he says, “let them try it. This is damn hard work.”


But for nearly two months he could not do the damn hard work he came for, dogged by controversy even here where he languished, waiting to present his credentials to Giscard d’Estaing, who always seemed to be too busy to receive them as hoots went up on the Opposition benches back home. “A deliberate snub to Canada—a farce,” stormed Claude Wagner, intoning that France-Canada relations had hit a low second only to those dark disaster days of De Gaulle and Vive le Québec libre, Pelletier all the while protesting that there really was a good reason for each new cancellation, that the French were being very nice and apologetic about it all. If there is a good deal of logic to his explanation, it is also true that had the French decided to be extra nice and apologetic they would have made special arrangements to avoid this embarrassment to a country with whom they had so newly restored the diplomatic niceties after five rocky piquefilled years. “You could always say they could have gone out of their way,” he says now discreetly, “but Giscard apologized profusely when I met him. I think it was just one of those incidents . . .” The man who once dispatched a reception guest because he was “an idiot” has since done some considerable honing of his diplomatic skills.

Indeed, in France it is no secret that the Elysée Palace was delighted with the appointment of Pelletier, a fellow intellectual and the man most likely to have Trudeau’s ear. It is an approbation that cannot hurt now as he sets out on his international high-wire act, striking the delicate balance from soiree to soiree, once more the unlikely salesman, this time pushing the contractual link to the Common Market that Canada wants so badly and to which Giscard holds the key. Still, it is clear he is basking in this newfound breathing space. “Even the things I presupposed would be damn boring have been interesting,” he marvels. But the real joy has been Paris. Paris, the city of his youth, the streets he roamed 30 years ago making fast his friendship with the man who was to become the fifteenth Prime Minister of Canada. They’d met earlier when Pelletier wrote an editorial lambasting college newspapers in the radical Catholic youth paper he was editing and Trudeau penned a mocking rebuttal. “It made me laugh so, that I thought, ‘I must meet this man, ’ ” he remembers fondly. He did and found. “At 19 he was exactly the same as he is now—what people call arrogant, and at the same time very gentle. We became friends almost immediately.”

It was an odd combination, Trudeau, the wealthy Westmount scion, and Pelletier, the son of the Victoriaville railway station

agent, the last of 10 children born to a great giant of a self-taught man whom he watched die a lingering painful death from cancer before his horrified nine-year-old eyes. Historians make much of the fact that all Three Wise Men lost their fathers young; certainly it left its mark on Pelletier who retreated into his books with a reserve that strangers were later to mistake for coldness. “To see a man destroyed,” he shudders still, “I had nightmares about it for years.” He was sent off to classical college on the wages of his sisters, then signed on with the World Student Relief Movement, chafing for a glimpse of war-torn Europe ever since he had biked to Quebec City at 15 to see a ship called the Normandy—“the first time I had seen a French word on anything larger than a bicycle,” he says. “This is something one must understand about francophone Canadians—we feel very isolated in the world.”

Later, when he found himself in Europe, ranging from battle site to bloody battle site dispensing aid, he spent almost every weekend in Paris haunting the left-bank cafés and hammering out the ideals that were to take flight in Cité Libre in the Fifties as the guiding star of the Three Wise Men. “Can you imagine this city without cars?” he reminisces as we drive off to lunch in his tiny black Peugeot limousine through the traffic-jammed Champs Elysée. The streets are sun-dappled as an Impressionist canvas as we pull up at a restaurant where he settles over a glass of good Bordeaux. “In those days you’d be sitting in a restaurant when there would suddenly be a blackout,” he says. “But we would just pull all the tables together in the centre and continue to argue.” They were heated debates on the future of Canada, impassioned discourses on the spectre of Communism all around them, “the rest of us sometimes swayed by sentiment,” he says, “but Trudeau would come down with a mind like a cutting knife.”

He had been back in Montreal two years as a $40-a-week labor reporter for Le Devo/rwhen they were reunited, Trudeau just returned from his world travels and tagging along on an assignment in Pelletier’s battered right-hand-drive-Singer, off to cover the long, bitter Asbestos strike of 1949 which was to be the turning point of Quebec’s social history—and where they finallyjoined up with the fiery, fighting bantam rooster of Quebec labor, Jean Marchand. By the strike’s end, they had been arrested, Pelletier had signed on to edit the paper for Marchand’s Confederation of National Trade Unions and they had cofounded Cité Libre, the rallying point of a whole generation of young Québécois brought together to battle the repressive rot of the Duplessis regime. They were the wild-eyed young radicals, the starry-eyed young Turks, their pledge to free education from the hands of the church branded heresy, Trudeau banned from the University of Montreal, Pelletier receiving hate mail and look-alike hanged dolls, his children’s lives threatened and even their teachers warning them that they would be punished for the sins of their father. “Oh, Mama, Mama,” they would tumble home crying, “is Papa really a bad Communist?” “We wanted to pull Quebec into the 20th century,” he says. “We were the revolutionaries of our time.”


Only 20 years later, it is hard to remember. Hard to recall that Trudeau, the whipping boy of organized labor, was once its Quebec darling. Hard to image that the Prime Minister who finds his government embroiled in the dredging scandal, the judges’ scandal and the Sky Shops scandal once railed in Cité Libre against FrenchCanadian politics: “We corrupt civil servants, we use blackmail on MPS, we put pressure on the courts, we defraud the treasury and we obligingly look the other way at graft when it concerns our interests.” Was it only 20 years ago? Pelletier, symbol of what a whole new Quebec generation has come to regard as the reactionary establishment, toys with his brochette de rognons. “Time passes,” he says.

Alex Pelletier tiptoes up the spiraling scarlet-carpeted staircase of her new ambassadorial home with trepidation, her voice hushed to a conspiratorial whisper. “The first days here, they said to me, ‘Ah, you live in one of the great houses of Paris’ ” she rolls her eyes. “All I could think of was this creaking floor, this great grandeur. I was overpowered by this house.” It took the four grown Pelletier children who descended last Christmas, roaring through the silk-lined salons and shouting ■'Mama” up the marble entrance hall, to finally convince her that this monumental chateau turned over to Canada by the Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld in 1951 was also her home. Even now, Alex Pelletier, who sometimes longs for the simple haphazard Montreal rowhouse she left behind, still does not seem too sure. She leads the way gingerly to the baronial secondfloor library where they now spend most of their time, their books lining the paneled walls, her favorite picture of her husband propped on one shelf—his back halfturned to the camera, tie loosened, Gitane hanging at ajaunty angle. For to know Gérard, one must know Alex Pelletier, a woman of heart and mind, one of Quebec’s most gifted film and television writers, a lady of earthy honesty and no-nonsense wit who has been celebrated in print as one of Canada’s “Great Dames.” They met in

the Montreal student movement just before the war, both fierce activists, hardburning idealists—“But nobody knew I loved Gérard and Gérard never told. Oh, no! We felt we had to be very strict, very pure, very disciplined,” she laughs. Now, nearly 40 years later, through the hard times of the Duplessis days, the battles of Cité Libre plotted in their living room and the long trying odyssey to Ottawa, they are each other’s best friends still. Alex Pelletier never did move to the nation’s capital—“a company town,” she calls it. “I never did want to be one of those women who was the impresario of their husband,” she says. She stayed in Montreal, salvaging what was left of her career after he became Secretary of State and she had to give up her CBC and National Film Board work to ward off conflict of interest charges, raising their four free-spirit offspring to carve out their own beliefs with notable success— Anne-Marie once campaigned for the NDP and Andrée, a talented actress, appeared nude in a Gilles Carle film, causing a minor sensation in her father’s ministry. “It was a pack of little wolves descending when he’d come home on Saturday,” she says. “Oh, how we’d give it to him on every issue—tell him how the ordinary people felt.” Alex Pelletier never opposed the Wise Men’s journey, though she watched her husband reel from crisis to crisis for a decade, drained and exhausted. “For 10 years we waited on the telephone,” she says. “For 10 years I’d take my little bag to Ottawa to have a marriage. It was a grinding life. But you can’t scream because all the time the big mistress is Canada.”

When he came to her last summer with news of Paris, it was no secret that she was relieved. “At first I thought he was crazy,” she says. “But it is retiring with a little more dignity. It is a third career, a more secure life. In politics you’re out in the cold any moment. They drop you any time.” Now, as she makes her way here through the hedgerows of diplomacy, bemused by the rites of courtjotting it all down in her journals for some wry future scenario, she misses home sometimes—“the trees, the lakes maybe,” her voice catches a little as she says it—but she never once misses politics. “Politics,” she says bitterly, “it takes everything from the man.”

“Politics.” Gérard Pelletier says the word with no bitterness, but no fondness either—like the name of some long-discarded lover, still mysterious and ultimately unknowable. He was never good at the cut and thrust of politics, the hearty desk-thumping gamesmanship, one eye always out for tomorrow’s headlines. “I was not a good parliamentarian,” he admits, although he never really understood why until it was over. “I was always trying to convince people, and in parliament people are already convinced in advance. The condition of intellectual honesty does not exist, and I thought standing on my feet to speak in vain was just futile.”

For years he sat there, blocking it all out like the “blurred chaos of some former newsroom, at first “so bored I found myself counting the steps in the staircases—and that is very bored,” later, as a minister, only emerging out into the maelstrom to face the lashings that each new turning seemed to bring. There is scarcely a soul now in Ottawa who would not agree that Gérard Pelletier was a good minister, perhaps even a great minister, charged with some of the most important and impossible tasks in the Trudeau regime, responsible for some of the humane high spots in the government’s record of legislation, architect of some of the bravest attempts to grapple with the social crises of this decade, but as a politician he was abysmal. At receptions aides recoiled to see that he could happily talk to the same person for hours, never catching on to the art of glad-handing. They cringed to see him thrust before the TV cameras to explain some OFY borderskirmish, the earnest honest shy man they knew suddenly taking on an air that was uneasy and shiftyeyed, destroyed by the very medium that had created Trudeau. They despaired to see him out on the hustings of English Canada talking of “cultural anguish”—too reasonable, too much the philosopher, falling flat and in the end, bruised by it. “It’s the fate of a man in public life to be criticized,” he says. “We did it to the generation before ours. But when you discover the next generation is not only pushing you in the back but denouncing you as a traitor, it still comes as a shock.”

Ironically, he was a master of the kind of politics that kept him reelected in his working-class riding of Hochelaga, at ease sitting around the kitchens over a beer, fighting out the issues man to man—a lesson the Liberals learned only too late when they sent the unsuspecting pinstriped Pierre Juneau into a quick slaughter in his wake. But for the rest, Pelletier regarded it as a duty, an existential challenge to be risen to; he never had the taste for it in his blood. Although one of the voices Trudeau most trusted, he never traded on it. With a certain fastidiousness, he called him “the PM,” never Pierre. He kept his distancewatching from the wings as his old friend slowly became more isolated, surrounded by his palace guard. If he was sacrificed finally for the cause of federalism before he could get his cherished film policy on the books, he is not telling. He went quietly, no huffs or dramatics. “I was tired,” is all he says. The relief now is real in his voice.

Pelletier had never planned to get caught up in politics, had wanted no part of it—just as, at first, it wanted no part of him. It was Marchand whom the Liberals were really after, Marchand, the spellbinding pied piper of Quebec labor they courted for three years until he finally gave in and said he would come to Ottawa, but not without his two friends. If the Liberals were not exactly enthusiastic about being faced with Trudeau, the sandal-shod law professor who had more than once pub-

licly berated them and pledged NDP alliance, they were horrified with the prospect of Gérard Pelletier—Pelletier, who had savaged them daily in La Presse. In fact, as they huddled in the Windsor Hotel negotiating their entry, Guy Favreau, the party’s Quebec lieutenant who had already been irrevocably tainted by the Lucien Rivard scandal, sat there the whole time holding a Pelletier column demanding his own resignation.

In the end Marchand forced their hand with a press conference and they stood beaming together for the photographers— the picture now a newsreel footnote: In the centre Marchand, the star; to one side,

Trudeau; and on the other, Pelletier, in a bluejacket and pants which did not match. Who could have predicted history from that photograph? Who could have foreseen that the bulky figure of Guy Favreau in the background was already broken and would die within the year—“destroyed,” as Pelletier was to write later, “by politics.” That the shadowy man beside him, Louis Giguère, the Quebec Liberal bagman who had orchestrated it all and was later to be rewarded for his pains with a Senate seat, would now stand charged on two counts of conspiracy in connection with influence peddling and one of theft from the Liberal Party in the Sky Shops affair?


The beginning of the end of Gérard Pelletier may have come in the dead of the night of October 16, 1970, when a prime ministerial aide drove silently up to Government House and woke up Governor General Roland Michener at 4 a.m. to sign the War Measures Act. Within hours of that black dawn, police swooped down

over Quebec to arrest more than 400 people without warrant or explanation—a move that has done more than any other to rend this country asunder and to crystallize the bitterness of Quebec separatists against Pierre Trudeau. They were consequences that Gérard Pelletier saw coming when he voted for the measure “with death on my soul,” as he put it. But what he did not say then, and what has never been said since, is that his own house in Montreal was raided in those early hours, Alex alone and at first frightened, then brazenly furious, shouting at the police as they dumped drawers that they were in the house of the Secretary of State, didn’t they know it? “Secretary of

State, what’s that?” they said. She phoned her husband in Ottawa and they finally realized they were in the wrong Gérard Pelletier’s house. “I told the PM,” he says. “I said there could be some embarrassing questions, but he asked me to keep it quiet.” He volunteers the tale now, too quickly, as if he wishes to be rid of it. It is clear that the War Measures Act still plagues him. He has waited for it to rear its ugly head through four days of interviews, braced himself for it and had aides warn me that there are certain questions he cannot answer as a public servant. But he does not shrink from it. He sits here now, the smoke curling up around the fine highbrowed profile that a friend has likened to one on an old Roman coin, and chooses his words scrupulously.

“I knew that it would be deeply wounding,” he says. “I knew what it was when police are left free to do what they want—I knew from the Asbestos strike and I knew from being jailed once on the border of Austria and Hungary because I lacked a signature on my passport and I watched a man being shot.” But he does not disown his decision. “I still believe there was a great risk of civil disorder. It’s very easy to be the Monday morning quarterback, but there was no right thing to do at the time. You could see the kind of panic people were experiencing. You were groping in the dark to see what the size of this goddamn movement was.” It is an irony that Pelletier, the editor no English journalist failed to visit in Montreal for the latest Quebec intelligence, should later find himself so out of touch. It was not long after that he told Trudeau for the first time that he wanted out of politics and wrote a justification of the War Measures Act in a book called La Crise d’Octobre—'a dialogue with my own conscience,” he admits.

Now, removed from the hurly-burly, given the space of an ocean to see his country, he sits back in this self-exile of ancient ritual and antique damask to chronicle a larger issue. The bookshelves of his library are heavy with old issues of Hansard as he struggles over his “anti-memoirs,” as he calls them. He writes each weekend, weighing the old goals, struggling with the eternal demons, setting down the record for the Three Wise Men. “Speaking personally,” he says, “I certainly didn’t achieve all I set out to, but I achieved more than I ever dreamed. In politics, the nightmare is the rock of Sisyphus. You say, ‘I’ve got this rock up the mountain, but will it come down when I change portfolios or get out?’ You know you have achieved things, but it’s very fragile.”

Only history can ultimately judge the Three Wise Men. But a journalist can ask Gérard Pelletier if, from this distance, he sees that politics is destroying them, as it once did Favreau. “No,” he says, but he seems to be thinking of something far away, perhaps painful, as he answers. “No,” he says carefully, “it certainly didn’t destroy me.”