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Jacques Parizeau Was One of the Foremost Builders of Modern Quebec

06/02/2015 10:51 EDT | Updated 06/02/2016 05:59 EDT
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Jacques Parizeau was Quebec Premier for merely 16 months, but he was a great servant of the state and, above all, one of the foremost builders of modern Quebec.

I covered Mr. Parizeau from 1990 to 1996 when I was a young field producer for CTV National News and journalist for Reuters at the Quebec National Assembly.

"Monsieur," as everyone called him, was a statesman; he truly had the interest of the public at heart in the noblest sense of the expression. The interest of the state came before his own. That is something that is becoming extremely rare in politics nowadays.

Dressed in his antiquated three piece suits, just as in the 50s while he was studying at the London School of Economics (he was the first French-Canadian to get a PhD from LSE!), he seemed to come from another era, notably when he spoke English with a thick British accent that surprised many an old timer at the Quebec legislature press gallery . "By Jove! I do not have the foggiest idea of what you are talking about," he once said to CBC's Rick Kalb, generating lots of laughs.

He was a brilliant, forward thinking man, an unparalleled brainiac. Jacques Parizeau is one of the architects of Quebec's Quiet Revolution (Révolution tranquille) during the first half of the 1960s. He was one of Premier Jean Lesage's advisors, and he was -- alongside René Lévesque -- on every front to transform Quebec into a modern state, whether it was nationalization of hydro power, or the creation of the Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Québec (Quebec's massive public pension fund manager) and the Régie des rentes du Québec (Quebec Public Retirement Fund). He helped most French-Canadians becoming master of their economic destiny.

Jacques Parizeau is also, obviously, one of the founding members of Parti québécois in 1968-1969, alongside Mr. Lévesque who had just stormed out of the Quebec Liberal Party. Mr. Parizeau often told how he was converted to the idea of independence... during a train ride in Western Canada! Plain and simple!

The rest of his career is well-known: elected in the 1976 provincial elections that brought the PQ to power -- to the surprise of many -- he was made finance minister and president of the Treasury Board by René Lévesque. He left the PQ in 1984, opposed to Lévesque's "Beau risque," a flirtation with Brian Mulroney's open federalism.

Jacques Parizeau was always a hardline sovereignist and never budged on this issue. He remained true to himself, his convictions and ideals. But his dream did not come true during his lifetime.

"Monsieur" came back to the PQ as its leader in 1988 and became leader of the opposition in 1989, after a few years spent teaching at HEC. He loved teaching and loved young people. Mr. Parizeau always believed in Quebec's vital forces. During campaigns, he made a point of stopping in all cegep and university campuses. He was a bona fide intellectual. He's always believed that the rejection of vocational training by students was regrettable and he was a visionary in that way -- look at the on-going manpower shortage in Quebec...

Mr. Parizeau remained in the opposition from 1989 to 1994 and became Prime minister on September 12, 1994. I had a front row seat that night, working for CTV News.

The next big event was the Quebec referendum on sovereignty, on October 30th, 1995. If Mr. Parizeau had had his way, that referendum would have happened very fast after the September 94 election, but the winning conditions were not in place and he had to wait.

The rest, as they say, is history. The No camp won the referendum, but by the slightest of margins; barely 52 000 votes made the difference. Mr. Parizeau's infamous speech on «the ethnic votes and money» on the night of the defeat acted as a cold shower on the PQ supporters and general public. Jacques Parizeau acted with great dignity and resigned the next day; fully aware his words were simply not acceptable. He thus paved to way for Lucien Bouchard, who became Premier, from January 1996 to January 2001.

During the referendum campaign, Mr. Parizeau had reluctantly given the reins to Lucian Bouchard, aware that he lacked the charisma and that defeat was assured if he kept leading at the forefront. There is probably the best example of putting himself second to the cause. He was also quite lucid in his decision of resigning on October 31, 1995.

I will remember "Monsieur," a politician who loved having conversations with journalists that would last for hours on end, a state technician, a great bureaucrat in the most noble sense of the term. Quebec was his passion and he believed in Quebec.

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