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Pierre Bourgault, the Life of a Quebec Radical

by NORMAN MADARASZ

Quebec political activist and intellectual, Pierre Bourgault was a man for whom politics and passion were woven from the same thread. The greatest orator that either Quebec or Canada produced of his generation, perhaps even of the century, he triggered the spark sending the province’s “Revolution tranquille” into turmoil and rage.

That so-called “Quiet Revolution” refers to the period of Quebec’s opening onto the outside world following a lengthy retreat. It may have been festering as far back as the colony’s failed aspiration to independence in the 1837-38 uprising. What otherwise remains certain is its ultimate culmination in Premier Maurice Duplessis’ democratic dictatorship. Duplessis seated his political power with the aid of the Catholic Church in a heady brew of nationalist protectionism. It took place at the cost of the Church’s dominance over the souls–and minds–of the former French colony. When he died in 1959, political and social liberty finally reached Quebec.

Among its offspring, the Rassemblement pour l’independance (RIN) was a festive sixties’ rendition of a two-century old dream: freedom of the French-Canadian nation from British subjection. Among its founding members, Pierre Bourgault set it ablaze with his fiery orations when assuming its leadership in 1964. He died on Monday, June 16, bequeathing a haze of some 3500 speeches left untranscribed. They hover ethereally over the French-speaking province’s claims to cultural and national distinction.

Bourgault was born in East Angus, Quebec on Jan. 23, 1934, and was educated by the Jesuits at College Jean de Brebeuf in Montreal. Like Louis Riel, another notable French-Canadian radical–albeit Metis–Bourgault initially considered becoming a priest. An atheist and homosexual, he became instead “Quebec’s official separatist icon: the standard against which others gauge their level of militancy”, as journalist Benoît Aubin once said of him.

If icons all feedback to archetypes, then Bourgault cast a Hamlet-like figure over Quebec politics. As the leader of a political party, he was the first to call out for Quebec independence in 1964. Four years later when de Gaulle uttered his fateful words on the balcony of Montreal City Hall, he was merely preaching to the converted.

Bourgault was especially the militant and intellectual to have ushered in his generation to the awareness that political reform in Quebec was akin to Third-World struggles against colonialism. Political reform could therefore only mean independence from the colonial Empire, represented in its later-day by the Canadian Federal Confederation. He took no short cuts to prove it. And the first victim was hope in the aspirations of the Quiet Revolution itself.

Quebec is the core of what was once called Nouvelle France: the land of the French Canadian nation. It was conquered by the British between the years of 1754 and 1763. The 1763 Treaty of Paris set the stage for France’s willed exclusion from the North American setting. In doing so it abandoned its settlers to a country which Jacques Godbout argues in his film The Fate of America really longed for ‘the village’–which is what the Iroquois meant by their word ‘Kanata’. With a fleet of seventy vessels and Iroquois warriors, Great Britain undertook a full-scale colonial invasion of Canada, capturing the fortress acropolis of Quebec in 1759. In addition to recently acquired Acadia, British North America then counted fifteen colonies. For the next two-hundred years the British either strived or yearned for the francophone population’s assimilation. This was the ghost haunting Bourgault’s nights, and the voice that became verse and rasp in his smoke-incensed larynx was its very own.

It was a voice that could stir a crowd into fury and outburst. Its pitch is said to have even frightened its player. When he approached the orator’s stage, Bourgault rubbed words together to spark fire. A lover of the French language, he also spoke English with a gentleman’s finesse. But he never forgot his stint in the Federal army in which every dictum had to be uttered in English.

A defining moment in the Quebec struggle for independence took shape in the infamous Saint-Jean Baptiste riot of 1968. Crowds gathered at the edge of Montreal’s Lafontaine Park to view the annual parade in honor of Quebec’s patron saint. Among them was the star of Trudeaumania, acting-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a homegrown product of the federal Liberal party running for his first election as head of state. Even more, it was the eve of a federal election held against a background of growing insurrection in Quebec. Trudeau, a staunch opponent of the ‘independantistes’ whom he had tainted in an article as “not social nationalists, but national socialists”, was favored to win. In his hometown, Trudeau’s appearance on national television meant to prove Quebec’s love for Confederation. Bourgault’s RIN had other ideas.

In one of the truly outstanding historical documentaries on Canada, Donald Brittain’s three-part The Champions, Bourgault is confronted to the filmmaker’s prodding questions. ‘Who organized the Saint-Jean-Baptiste riot?’ “I did,” responded Bourgault unequivocally. It was a night of frenzy rarely seen in Quebec, comparable only to “Samedi des Matraques” (Truncheon Saturday), a vicious police crackdown on demonstrators against Queen Elizabeth II’s 1964 visit to Quebec. Then, the police violence had occurred despite Bourgault’s call for restraint. In a furious speech, he had just called for Quebec to seek independence from Canada.

On June 24, 1968 Bourgault chose not to let history repeat itself. As the Molotov cocktails and bottles flew into the VIP grandstand, pelting the fleeing dignitaries, mounted police charged the thick crowd. Bourgault recounts how his people were spread about to seek both shelter and tilt the brewing passion of a youth swept up by the world student movement. Despite the police brutally and indiscriminate violence, Trudeau remained in his seat. In an evening meant to offer a heroic welcome, Bourgault handed his rival a hero’s stage.

Unbeknownst even to him, he had just signed Trudeau’s ticket to become the most influential politician in Canadian history. As for Bourgault himself, police spotted him immediately. First to be arrested and charged with inciting a riot, he was acquitted a week later.

Failing to get elected at the helms of the RIN, the project of Quebec’s future convinced Bourgault of the need to step back from the leadership. When another of Trudeau’s rivals, Rene Levesque’s Movement Souverainete-Association turned into a full-fledge party, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in 1968, Bourgault dissolved the RIN. He called for his movement to rally to the new hopeful and work in haste for independence. Side-lined and feared by Levesque, Bourgault was still elected to the Party’s executive committee and never lost his vision of an independent Quebec based on humanist principles.

Under Levesque, the Parti Quebecois was first swept to power in the fall of 1976. It held the first referendum on Quebec independence in May 1980. Bourgault appeared as a commentator on the French-language national network, SRC (Societe Radio-Canada), on Referendum night. As the results streamed in against the Sovereignists, Bourgault showed another side of his impenitent passion. Unable to witness the defeat, he turned his back to humiliation and to the screen broadcasting the referendum results. Stupefied silence was the order of the day. He would next open his mouth only to call for Levesque’s ousting: “it’s with death in my soul to have to call for the resignation of the greatest statesman Quebec has ever produced”.

Always on the vanguard, he began writing an English-language column in the meantime for the arch-conservative Montreal daily, the Gazette. In doing so, he entered the lion’s den. “A shouting match is better than the dreadful silence that sows distrust between partners and turns true friends into enemies,” is how he explained his move. To this day, the Gazette has been rabidly opposed to French Canadian nationalism and has always interpreted Quebec politics through the attenuating spectrum of Anglo-Saxon rights. And when the Brits left the land subsequent to the 1976 PQ victory, the newspaper then increased its font to include ethic English-speakers.

Bourgault’s essays dealt with issues of civilization, morality and critical thought. In a piece from May 1982, he wrote of the racism expressed toward Quebec’s fleet of Haitian taxi drivers. “It is almost natural to be born a racist,” he wrote. Only to challenge his readers: “It’s a crime to remain one.”

With his fine intellectual’s eye, oratory wit and communicator’s heart, it was no wonder that the next major PQ leader after Rene Levesque, Mr. Jacques Parizeau, sought his services as political ‘communications’ advisor. Yet the hamlet would soon overwhelm the village. At first, Bourgault was damned for preaching sedition: “If a vast majority of franco-Quebecers vote Yes and are prevented from (becoming sovereign) because the English vote against, then it’s a dangerous situation.” Then he shamed by lashing out at Quebec’s minorities: “It is the Jews, the Italians and the Greeks who cast an ethnic vote. It is they who are racist, not us. They have only one objective, to block (sovereignists). To win a referendum we will have to do like them: an ethnic vote!” Premier Parizeau could only repeat Bourgault’s verdict when learning of defeat in the 1995 referendum by less than one percent. It still remains that “money and the ethnic vote” did indeed block an overwhelming majority of Quebecois from winning their referendum.
He was at his most Hamlet-like in the tone of his resignation from government advisory functions: “I have become an embarrassment to my allies. Since the sovereignist cause comes above all else and I can no longer serve it correctly, I am definitely quitting the political scene and leave others, no doubt more able and efficient than I, the care of defending and promoting (sovereignty).” Few however will be able to speak so strikingly from where it made collective sense to seek historical retribution.

As if in a morality tale, when Quebec finally rid itself of the Catholic Church’s paternalism and weaned itself from a corrupt democracy in the early sixties, it awoke to a world in which its language and culture were immediately made vulnerable. Numbering less than 4 million at the time and with the specter of fully anglicized New Orleans as a nearby memo, the ‘French-Canadians’ had cause to worry.

Under the dominance of Anglo-Saxon industrialists and financiers, its people were as undereducated and unskilled as Blacks and Natives even for the 1960s’ work force. As Jean Lesage’s provincial government took office in 1960 it implemented an urgent plan to modernize the province. It had to prepare a work force to confront the Anglo-American system that had dominated it for decades. This preparation would bear its fruit with the flight of Anglo business in the late-1970s, petrified by the prospect of a ‘French’ take-over. Quebecois men could now strive for more than to be priests and school teachers, and young women began streaming through the university doors.

The most ambitious step in the public transformation of Quebec into French came with the enactment of Law 101, the French Language Charter, in 1977. French became de facto the official language of the province–just as Canada as a whole was going through the strokes of becoming bilingual. For all its brilliant accomplishments, the PQ’s work on rallying immigrants to the just cause of Quebec independence has been the major obstacle to fulfilling its historical project.

The quality of Quebec’s intellectuals has often balked at convincing the stubbornness of the other. At the same time, many intellectuals have all too easily embraced the myth of the American and French republics as if seeking remoteness from the British system at any cost and irrespective of the government in charge. In that, they submit to the attraction most often exerted by the southern neighbor onto Quebec’s immigrant populations and their offspring. Locked in a blind spot, the two persuasions have not met.

Bourgault’s column in the 1980s for the Montreal Gazette was a rare glance given to Anglo readers of the level of intellectual debate occurring just across the language divide–if only they would learn the province’s official language. As the son of Hungarian political refugees, I was often uncertain where to stand on the provincial national issue. Bourgault’s writings and speeches were instrumental for lifting Quebec out of the provincialism of the debate as depicted by the Gazette as well as by many French Canadian federal politicians eking out a living in Ottawa. He placed its struggle on a broader world-historical plane. As such he wrote and spoke like a comet, or a shining star, an artist/radical who made revolt crystal clear by painstakingly polishing its essence: words that when uttered have the character to shape the common good and collective will.

In 1980 he spoke as if today: “I will walk no longer.”

NORMAN MADARASZ, born and raised in Montreal as a ‘bilingual allophone’, teaches and writes on philosophy and international relations in Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at nmphdiol2@yahoo.ca.

 

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