Publishing

The biography blues

Will a Quebec businessman’s story ever get told?

MARK CARDWELL May 5 1997
Publishing

The biography blues

Will a Quebec businessman’s story ever get told?

MARK CARDWELL May 5 1997

The biography blues

Publishing

Will a Quebec businessman’s story ever get told?

MARK CARDWELL

It’s not the kind of publicity Quebec writer Pierre Turgeon was expecting from a new book. Four years ago, the award-winning author agreed to write a biography of the late PaulHervé Desrosiers, an influential businessman with close ties to the notoriously corrupt Union Nationale government of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis. The work was commissioned by Desrosiers’s great-nephew, Quebec home-renovation magnate Pierre Michaud, who provided Turgeon with financial and technical support during the four years it took to research and write the book. When the final manuscript was ready for publishing, however,

Michaud demanded the removal of potentially explosive details about his great-uncle’s business dealings. When Turgeon refused,

Michaud went to Quebec Superior Court last August and won a temporary injunction in an ongoing legal battle that is fast becoming a freedom-of-speech cause célèbre in Quebec. “I risk dying of old age before the book is published,” says 49-year-old Turgeon, a winner of Governor General’s Awards for fiction in 1981 and nonfiction in 1993. “But I won’t give up because, if I lose, it means history is the private property of the rich.” The central issue in the case remains the court’s interpretation of two signed contracts involving Turgeon and Michaud. Under the terms of the first contract, signed in 1993, Michaud paid Turgeon $21,000 to conduct research and prepare an outline for a possible biography on Desrosiers, a heretofore little-known figure in Quebec history. Michaud’s endorsement of a five-page précis the following summer—and a $33,000 advance to Turgeon to enable him to finish the book—led to the second agreement: a contract between Turgeon and Sogides Ltée, a Montreal publisher. (That contract was later picked up by another Quebec publisher, Jacques Lanctôt, when Sogides failed to give Turgeon assurances that the manuscript would be published in 1996.) According to

the terms of that agreement, Michaud’s loan would be repaid through sales of the book, titled P.H. le magnifique: l'eminence grise de Duplessis. In return, Turgeon’s lawyer argues, Michaud waived his rights to the work.

That may explain why Michaud’s lawyers decided to strengthen their client’s hand by invoking Article 35 in Quebec’s Civil Code, which came into effect on Jan. 1,1994. The new article states: “Every person has the right to the respect of his reputation and privacy. No one may invade the privacy of a person without the consent of the person or his heirs unless authorized by law.” The use of the clause, together with Michaud’s request that the hearings into the matter be closed to the public (a request that was rejected in December but will be heard by Quebec Appeals Court on June 8), added

an entirely new dimension to the case.

In particular, it won Turgeon the support of the province’s main writers and journalists associations, as well as the Quebec Civil Liberties Union, a coalition of more than 100 organizations, including Quebec’s two largest unions. “This has become far more than a contractual dispute,” says the director of the Quebec Writers’ Union, Pierre Lavoie, whose 950-member organization won an appeal on April 18 for the right to intervene on Turgeon’s behalf. “It raises huge questions about the liberty of expression and freedom of the press.” Turgeon’s lawyer, François Shanks, who filed notice with Quebec’s solicitor general the previous day that he will test the constitutionality of Article 35 if Michaud wins, adds: “There is nothing in the Constitution or the Charter of Rights that says you need the consent of heirs to reveal information about dead people.” Lawrence Martin, Ottawabased author of the acclaimed 1995 biography Jean Chrétien: The Will to Win, has also come up against the new Civil Code while researching a biography of Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard. After seeking an interview with Bouchard’s first wife, Jocelyne Côté, he received a threatening letter last fall from her lawyer, Danielle Laprise, invoking the “right of privacy recognized by both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Civil Code.” Laprise demanded that Í Martin stop making inquiries into J Côté’s private life and hand over I all his files dealing with her. “I was = astonished to receive this letter,” £ says Martin. “How far can this

1 thing go? Can you be charged % with an offence for simply asking 2 questions? In terms of free £ speech, it’s very threatening— J and quite absurd.”

Understandably, the publicity surrounding the Turgeon case has only fuelled speculation about which family secrets Michaud wants to keep hidden about his great-uncle. Born to humble circumstances in a small Quebec village in 1898, Desrosiers worked his way up from the factory floor to become a steel company executive and a board member of several mining and manufacturing firms. Desrosiers, known as “P.H.” to his friends, became the intimate of a succession of Quebec premiers from Duplessis to Robert Bourassa, and the founder of a multimillion-dollar building supply empire that employed more than 1,000 people at the time of his death at age 70. Desrosiers’s flamboyant personality—and the steady stream of government contracts that flowed through his companies, particularly during the Duplessis years—led Conrad Black to describe him in his 1977 biography of Duplessis as “one of the more colorful contractors favored with government business in Quebec.”

Desrosiers left the bulk of his estate to his two grand-nephews, Claude and Pierre Michaud. In 1992, Pierre Michaud converted one of the companies, Val-Royal Builders Supply, into the 11-centre Quebec renovation chain Réno-Dépôt. The company was sold last month for $147 million to French hardware giant Castorama.

Because Pierre and Claude Michaud began working for Desrosiers’s business empire in the 1950s (in fact, Turgeon says they supplied him with some of the juiciest anecdotes that appear in the book), many people wonder why they commissioned the book in the first place. According to Turgeon, Pierre Michaud thought Desrosiers was an important person in Quebec history, and should be as well known as Quebec credit union founder Alphonse Desjardins or snowmobile inventor Armand Bombardier. “Pierre told me his uncle wasn’t a saint,” Turgeon says, “but he wanted his story told.”

According to Michaud’s lawyer, Marek Nitoslawski—who will try to convince the Quebec Appeals Court on June 8 that the case should be closed to the public— Michaud wanted the biography to be an internal document for Réno-Dépôt employees. “We’re not trying to prevent people from going off and doing their own research and writing a book on their findings, provided they don’t libel anyone,” says Nitoslawski. “But in this particular case, Mr. Turgeon was given access to all sorts of intimate information under a contractual agreement in which Mr. Michaud had complete discretion not to publish.” For Quebec writers in all fields, however, the case—and the use of Article 35 in particular—could have farreaching consequences. Says René Durocher, a University of Montreal historian and co-author of a two-volume history of modern Quebec: “The idea that you need to have the permission of a deceased’s heirs is ludicrous. It would be simply impossible to write history.”

Others, however, simply wonder what all the fuss is about. Juliette Baby, Desrosiers’s corporate secretary for more than 30 years, says she has read Turgeon’s manuscript. “I think Mr. Desrosiers would want this book published because he loved to shock people and he was happiest when people talked about him.” Adds Baby, 90: “I read Stevie Cameron’s book on Mulroney and it was 10 times worse than anything Mr. Turgeon talks about. Michaud’s actions are just going to get people to rush out and buy the book when it’s published, and they’ll say, ‘Is that all?’ ” Regardless of whether the book’s content is truly sensational, the story of its rocky road to publication is a genuine scandale.