A vital voice in Quebec

David Thomas May 17 1982

A vital voice in Quebec

David Thomas May 17 1982

A vital voice in Quebec


David Thomas

In Montreal, a steady flight of anglophones has opened up many oncehomogenous neighborhoods to cultural mixing. But in the traditionally anglophone enclaves of the city’s west end, there are still streets where the barrier of language seems as solid as the Berlin Wall. In that area, the transplants stand out starkly. A folded copy of Le Devoir on a lone doorstep in a streetscape papered by the Gazette is a dead giveaway.

The deviant Le Devoir subscriber living on one such street is the newspaper’s new editor-in-chief, Lise Bissonnette. At 8:30 a.m.—an excruciatingly early hour for most journalists—she is up and answers the door with her usual burst of breathless talk that would sound like prattle if it were not so articulate. Anything, from last year’s burst pipes and the flooding of her kitchen to yesterday’s political story, can serve as the subject of a passionate oration. Always immaculately and fashionably dressed, another unusual trait for a journalist, Lise Bissonnette wears her new authority as comfortably as her business clothes. But there is not a trace of conceit or imperiousness in her manner.

Bissonnette is a woman remarkable for more than just her choice of neighborhood or—at 36 with just eight years of newspaper experience—her rapid rise to prominence. She is an ardent defender of Quebec’s language legislation, yet would choose New York over Paris as a place to live. She remains an advocate of independence, but she is a harsh critic of the “siege mentality” of Premier René Lévesque and other oldguard nationalists. Determined in her championship of women’s right to professional equality, she credits her own ambition and accomplishment to a long-standing romantic relationship that most feminists would unhesitatingly call a throwback to the worst of the sexual double standard.

Her house is a gallery of contemporary Quebec art, an interest acquired from her lover. For his sake, she has sacrificed her desire to have children. A brilliant and influential woman, she goes out of her way to attribute her achievement to her odd romantic life. “I have time to work, time that I wouldn’t have as a married wife with children,”

she says. And she herself points to a recent interview appearing in a magazine for housewives in which she declares, “I am mobile and in my love life I am aided by a man who believes in me, who was an extraordinary motivator, who pushed me, encouraged me.” The article, mercifully, does not reveal to its readers that Lise Bissonnette’s extraordinary man has returned home each night for 18 years to his wife and children.

The product of a traditional FrenchCanadian family, Bissonnette is successful beyond her adolescent dreams.

Still, she seems almost apologetic over her abandonment of traditional female vocations learned as she grew up in Quebec’s remote Abitibi region. As she apologizes for the unwashed dishes in her kitchen, her forgotten breakfast dries to a crisp in the oven. “Oh no, I can’t even heat a croissant properly,” she complains. “But don’t write that. Everyone will think I can’t cook.”

It is, of course, not what Bissonnette cooks but what she writes that causes Quebeckers to wrinkle their noses or smack their lips. Two years ago, as assistant-editor-in-chief and an editorial

writer, she was responsible for Le Devoir's unusual display of its own internal divisions over the provincial referendum on independence, in which the paper laid out its disagreement in a page of four individually signed editorials. Only Michel Roy, Bissonnette’s predecessor and now chief editorial writer at La Presse, wrote in favor of the federalist cause. For her part, Bissonnette advised readers to vote “yes” to sovereignty because otherwise the federal government of Pierre Trudeau would proceed with its patriation plan and “freeze the constitution in its centuryold imbalance.” Quebec, she warned, would become a “blocked society.”

The fact that only 24 months later Bissonnette would be made responsible for the paper’s daily news coverage demonstrates that favoring independence is not equated with radicalism in Quebec. It also shows that Bissonnette’s colleagues are confident that her professional commitment is stronger than her personal prejudices. That conviction was demonstrated at several stages in the appointment process. Under Le Devoir's unique labor contract, journalists participate in the appointment of their own editors through a selection committee composed of two management and two union representatives. Le Devoir's Publisher Jean-Louis Roy, the final authority in the appointment, told the paper’s annual shareholders’ meeting two weeks ago that Bissonnette represents a guarantee of Le Devoir's “heritage of credibility.”

Bissonnette had already set a career at Le Devoir as the apex of her ambition when she left home in her mid-teens to live in the then-dingy mill town of Hull,

Que. There, she studied to become a teacher and went on to specialize in education at the University of Montreal. But, already, printer’s ink was becoming an addiction. Like many other aspiring journalists she spent too many hours working on the student newspaper, Le Quartier Latin, and in 1965 became assistant-editor-in-chief. In 1967, she cofounded a tabloid for youth called Jeune-Québec that folded in bankruptcy after seven issues.

Soured on journalism by that experience, she joined the University of Quebec in Montreal as a planning officer. But the craving took hold again when she learned that Le Devoir’s education beat was vacant. “At the age of 15 I had dreamt of being education writer at Le Devoir,” Bissonnette wrote to Claude Ryan, the paper’s former publisher who quit in 1978 to lead the provincial Liberal party. “Ryan replied that my background was too academic. I persisted and six months later he hired me,” she

Tf you ask me if there is a chance for independencey I will have to sayy not much. That

depresses me. ’

recalls. “You can’t imagine how I felt the first time I entered the newsroom. I had my first byline the very next morning and I had the hallucinating feeling of having been there all my life.” She needed little training and rapidly was assigned by Ryan to the press galleries of Quebec City and Ottawa.

Her rise paralleled that of the Parti Québécois from radical fringe to governing party. By the time of the referendum she had become one of the province’s most respected journalists. Now, Lise Bissonnette’s only pleasure in the outcome is the prescience of the prereferendum editorial that warned Quebeckers that by voting “no” they would sacrifice all their bargaining power. Her assessment two years later: “The worst moment of the whole [constitutional] affair for me was not the visit of the Queen, which was merely ridiculous and insignificant, but the train ride in the rain from Ottawa to Montreal after last November’s constitutional conference. I realized then that the whole concept of national duality which had been argued over for years was now just an old dream.” In her opinion the only reasonable alternative—national independence—has also become chimera: “If you ask me if there is a chance of independence, I will have to say, not much. That depresses me. The minority status,

which we have constantly battled against since 1760, since the conquest, is now fact.”

The day Queen Elizabeth proclaimed Canada’s Constitution, Bissonnette was in Montreal watching the PQ’s protest march against it. She found neither solace nor encouragement in the spectacle of her provincial premier walking shoulder to shoulder with members of the Saint-Jean Baptiste Society, still obsessed with cultural protectionism rooted in old desires for a French and Roman Catholic nation-state of the sort that went out of fashion in Europe about the time of the conquest. “If we are to achieve independence, it will have to be with our sights on the future, not on the past. I don’t see the strength needed to do that in Quebec today.”

As French Canada’s sometimes sanctimonious moral and intellectual authority, Le Devoir has a prominence disproportionate to its small circulation of 45,000. If not quite the arbiter of political fashion, the paper now reflects the views of a younger, more modern generation than it did in Ryan’s day. Le Devoir editorials are never likely to bring down a government, but they do reveal the profound chasm separating the generation of Quebec politicians now in office from much of the province’s young professional classes.

What distinguishes modern nationalists like Bissonnette from their predecessors is the absence of the lust for revenge and the settling of old scores. Despite protestations to the contrary, the nationalism practised by the Quebec government is ethnocentric and driven by visceral fear and dislike of outsiders. Bissonnette exudes neither the arrogance nor the resentment born of a sense of inferiority that often creates tension between old-line nationalists and English-speaking Canadians. Two years ago, she spent time in New York as a guest of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and felt “happier and more at ease in the states” than she had as a student in France a decade earlier. “I love the liberty. France just isn’t as free,” she says. Columnist and Carleton University Prof. Anthony Westell, also a Carnegie Endowment guest at the time, remembers Bissonnette fondly. “She’s a Quebec nationalist,” he says. “But not in any sort of explosive or angry sense. Lise is a really delightful person.”

After finally skipping her breakfast, more because she hadn’t stopped talking than because it was burnt, Bissonnette leaves her house in the Anglo west end for her usual 12-hour day at Le Devoir. Partly because of those long days Bissonnette wants to move closer to the city’s centre, and her little house is for sale. So the street is about to lose its famous journalist. And, along with her, its lonely copy of Le Devoir.