10/03/2013 09:55 EDT | Updated 12/03/2013 05:12 EST

Quebec Values Charter: Jacques Parizeau Wants Plan Watered Down


MONTREAL - A politely worded bit of prose from a prominent part-time writer has recommended that the Parti Quebecois values charter be softened in a second draft.

The author is Jacques Parizeau, eminence grise of the Quebec sovereignty cause and hero to the movement's grassroots.

The former PQ premier, who organized the 1995 independence referendum that nearly took Quebec out of Confederation, offered his views in a column Thursday in Le Journal de Montreal.

He appeared on the cover of the tabloid beside the all-caps headline: "IT GOES TOO FAR." The headline font was, however, far louder than the column's tone.

In a carefully worded piece, Parizeau suggested the headwear ban be narrowed to apply only to people in positions of authority, like judges and police, which he says is what a provincial inquiry on the issue recommended a few years ago.

"I wouldn't go any further for the moment," Parizeau wrote in the column.

That approach happens to be closer to the position of the Coalition party, which holds the swing vote in the legislature. That would place Parizeau at odds with his old party should it choose to use its current charter plan as a central theme in an election campaign.

The PQ government responded by saying that it welcomes Parizeau's suggestions, as it does the contribution of any citizen.

But as some political commentators suggested Thursday, Parizeau is not just any citizen. He co-founded the PQ in 1968 and has been its leader — both literally, and figuratively, over the years.

Parizeau is now urging the PQ to draw back, after a political lifetime spent urging it to push forward.

He repeatedly gained the admiration of the party's more hawkish wing by fighting its leaders whenever he felt they strayed too far from the independence goal, as he did when he quit the Rene Levesque cabinet in 1984.

And, unlike almost all other PQ leaders who took a go-slow approach to achieving sovereignty, he launched ahead with a referendum strategy as soon as he was elected in 1994.

He quit politics the day after the referendum loss, which in a bitter concession speech he had blamed on "money and ethnic votes."

In an interview Thursday on Montreal radio station 98.5 FM, Parizeau said his policy on the values charter had nothing to do with making up for those 1995 remarks.

He also insisted that the now-infamous comments were not meant to target specific voters — just community organizations.

''The common front of the Italian, Greek and Jewish congresses was politically active in an extraordinary way in the No camp and had formidable success,'' Parizeau told host Paul Arcand.

''It was very efficient.''

He certainly didn't make that point clear on the night of Oct., 30, 1995.

In fact, he began that concession speech with an observation on voter behaviour. In a less-remembered part of the speech, Parizeau noted that a certain type of Quebecer was far likelier to support the new country than a certain other type.

"Let's stop talking about francophones from Quebec, if you don't mind. Let's talk about 'us,'" is how Parizeau began the speech, using the French pronoun "nous."

"At a rate of 60 per cent, we voted for (a country)."

A few minutes later, after he made some cheerful predictions about how another referendum might soon be held and won, his sunny facial expression faded and it morphed into a scowl as he delivered the more famous line.

"It's true we were beaten, but by what?" Parizeau told the crowd.

"By money and ethnic votes, essentially. What that means is that next time instead of being 60 or 61 per cent to vote Yes, we'll be 63 or 64 per cent and it'll be done."

Parizeau's admirers have argued that the speech was out of character for the man, who in his youth had lived abroad and in more recent decades had worked to build bridges between the PQ and ethnic voters.

The next day he admitted his speech had gone too far. He also announced his imminent departure from politics, saying he had no plans to remain premier of a Canadian province.

Ever since then, the PQ grassroots has judged its leaders against the independence-seeking standard set by Parizeau. And he has been frequently critical of the party, to the point now of practically becoming one of its actual opponents.

Parizeau, who spoke last year at an Option nationale rally, said in the radio interview Thursday that, with the proposed charter, ''a fire is starting in our society.''

The former premier said newly arrived immigrants are starting to be scared.

''All these people come from countries that are rife with conflict, crises and tension based on these religious matters. Here they had peace...And now all of a sudden we're going in with our big boots.''

Parizeau's latest stand could be a test of how much influence he still wields within the PQ. In recent years he and other more ardent sovereigntists have drifted away toward the fringe party Option nationale.

In the column, Parizeau said he believes this is the first time a Quebec government has ever attempted to legislate against religion.

He said he believes the policy stems from a fear of Islam.

"It's understandable," he said.

"About the only contact most Quebecers have with the Islamic world is through images of violence, repeated ad infinitum: wars, riots, bombs, the World Trade Center attack and the one at the Boston marathon. There's also the image of the subjugation of women and the violence against them when they try to free themselves. The reaction is obvious: Don't bring that here!

"It's less the case in Montreal, where we interact more."

But Parizeau said Quebecers are not mean or vindictive people, pointing to a poll this week that suggested a strong majority opposed firing someone over their religious headwear.

He made one other suggestion in his column: that the crucifix be removed from the central spot it holds in the Quebec legislature and moved to another place in the building.

The column began with an overview of how Quebec public institutions were already made more secular in the 1960s, when he was a senior provincial public servant.

Critics might pick at some aspects of Parizeau's analysis.

While he describes Montreal as unique in the province, polls have suggested there's not much of a gap between francophones in Montreal and other parts of the province on the issue. In fact, among francophones, support for the charter has been lowest in Quebec City, not Montreal.

Also, in his reference to the poll on Quebecers' willingness to see headscarf-wearers fired, he might have overstated the number of those opposing the idea.

He referred to "three-quarters" opposed to the notion of firing someone, but that finding from a recent poll was actually a national number. The figure was about a dozen percentage points lower for Quebec, though it was still above 60 per cent.

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