As Harry Truman once said this is a time for some plain speaking. For almost two years we have been witnessing the public lynching of Alfonso Gagliano and anyone who even had lunch with him. Many have felt that this trial by innuendo in the public press was a disgrace and that this hypocrisy should stop. This week the President of the Canadian Italian Congress in Quebec, Nino Colavecchio, decided to do something about it. His courageous stand may be the beginning of a restoration of sanity and civility that may yet save our political culture from degenerating into an “Alice in Wonderland” world of the Mad Hatter “…sentence first, trial after…”.
Sadly, Mr. Colavecchio’s actions were sparked by a scurrilous and unwarranted attack on his integrity. His company, TNC Multicom, was accused by a “La Presse” reporter of having obtained part of a 12 company Federal government sponsorship contract solely based on his acquaintance with Mr. Gagliano. The reporter charged that TNC was only a “centre de traduction” and unqualified to handle advertising and communications work. When informed that TNC had a ten-year history in advertising and Mr. Colavecchio a 25-year history in communications, he still refused to change his story. He also did not bother to identify the other Presidents of ad agencies choosing to focus on the one with an Italian at its head. And, naturally, no mention was made of the other executives who had friendships with Mr. Gagliano.
Mr. Colavecchio had enough. He called TVA and in a remarkable interview exposed truth.
“We live in a culture of clichés,” he said. “It has come to the point that if you knew Mr. Gagliano…you must be guilty of something. If you are from St. Léonard…you must be a criminal. If you are Italian…you must be part of the Mafia. I would like to state here and now that as the President of the Canadian Italian Congress in Quebec I intend for this attitude to change.”
Mr. Colavecchio’s outrage was justified. The attack on him was based on a lingering and shameful double standard in our public life. One for “pure laine” members of the founding cultures, another for “les autres.” This simmering racism feeds and nurtures a climate that gives rise to the Michaud comments on the Holocaust and Parizeau’s on ethnics and money and indeed to Gilles Duceppe’s repugnant tones of derision and vilification as he contortedly mispronounced the names of Colavecchio and Gagliano-o-o (his phrasing) in Parliament this week. This cannot go unanswered nor unchallenged.
For this issue is troubling to all, not just to Italian-Canadians. Every minority’s fight for equity and equality is never relegated only to that community, for the concerns raised speak to our character as a people and test the courage of our collective conscience. This is a matter that can be understood only with the iconography and imagery of a civil rights struggle. Racism must never be allowed to wear the cloak of quasi-legitimacy proffered by “gentlemen’s agreements”. We must marshal a resolve to expose these dark shadows to the healing rays of the light of day.
To understand what is happening we must look at some history surrounding the Gagliano Affair. It is instructive that Mr. Chrétien’s calls to the BDC for the Auberge Grand Mere raised nowhere near the ferocity of attacks as were levelled against Mr. Gagliano even though the latter was never accused of illegalities or personal profit, only “possible improprieties” in allegedly helping a friend secure a mid-level position at Canada Lands Corp.
As for the “commandite scandal”, every Federalist politician and business leader signed on to the sponsorship program after the near disaster in the 1995 referendum when the “Non” side almost ran out of money. Everyone of import signed on to wave the flag and swore that we would not lose Canada because of a lack of funds. And Mr.Gagliano handled it masterfully. Indeed some have argued that this very program turned the tide against the separatist threat in the past few years.
Mr. Gagliano received the same kudos when he orchestrated the 2000 Federal Campaign in Quebec that saw a major reversal of the Bloc Québecois for the first time in years. His opening of the Liberal Party’s backroom political process in Quebec to more women, cultural communities and social action groups was a broader reform than any Political Minister had done in decades. All these facts beg the question of what did he do wrong? What were his “crimes”.
Yes, he worked closely with his friends and allies. Who should he have worked with his enemies? Yes, he played things close to the vest and took many an executive decision alone. Does anyone think that politicians who act only with the benediction of pollsters and pundits really get anything done? Yes, he was loyal to his Prime Minister. But what about the other Ministers who also obtained the political spoils of war from this same leader?
Nothing justified his abandonment at the first sign of controversy by the very elected officials who had worked intimately with him, had received benefits from him, and had accepted promotion by him. It was a disgraceful display of ingratitude, false piety and cowardice. It is becoming more evident that Mr. Gagliano was not attacked for what he did wrong. He was attacked precisely for what he did right and the vested interests that his success threatened.
Mr. Gagliano’s “guilt” was of a different order, his “crimes” of a different nature. He was guilty of not being a “bella figura”. Of not being transparent and “politically correct”. Of not letting others take more credit for his successes. Of not being a member of the “club”. And most of all, for being so obvious a member of that sub-strata of Quebec society called “les autres”. He was open for attack.
And the attacks came. By stealth. Innuendo. Two plus two equalling five. Never from anyone willing to stand up on a point of policy or principle. Always from the faceless nests of nightcrawlers who resented his appointment as the first non-francophone political minister from Quebec. From those who didn’t like his style. From those who felt that since he was not to the manor born nor to the native people bred he must be a usurper of power. From members of the highest echelons of our two founding cultures who had never made peace with what Michael Novak termed the “unmeltable ethnics”. The attacks came from those who found it pleasurable and profitable to attack him because his family name ended in a vowel.
Canada is not in John Porter’s phrase “the vertical mosaic”. It is not an elegant integration of various cultures and colours. It is a good and gentle land where each new immigrant wave brings with it diversity and daring that propels every generation to new levels of greatness. But each wave also faces the stubborn cynicism and peculiar prejudices of our founding cultures. The friction between the new and old has always existed and will continue to. Governing this land is difficult. The physical breadth and cultural diversity make consensus impossible but alliances vital. In politics those who understand this propel us forward. Those who don’t keep us stalled at harbour.
The hypocrites and jealous dandies, the elitists and the racists, may have their moment but will never win the day. Even when they hijack the message and metaphor of justice in our society, the experience and expression of the best of what we are is protected by an institutional memory that is true and clear. As a Francophone Senator once told me “les vrais deux solitudes’ of Quebec is between that half of our people that is the most liberal in North America on all matters of the social agenda, constantly being opposed by the other half who are the heirs of the knee-jerk intolerance of Duplessis. In the end, the former always wins.
For Quebec is not the land of Michaud nor Parizeau nor Duceppe nor even Duplessis. In the final analysis Quebec is the society that gave full emancipation to the Jews in 1832 eight years before England. Quebec is the culture that nurtured Laurier’s vision of an inclusionary and internationalist Canada of the 20th Century. And Quebec was the crucible that forged the heroism of men like Jean Marchand and Pierre Elliot Trudeau in the 1950’s and 1960’s who broke the back of a revanchiste right and a retrograde clergy and paved the way for Jean Lesage’s “Revolution Tranquille” that allowed all Quebecers a place where they could find their fullest expression as human beings.
We are now at the beginning of a new political era that can make a radical break with the recent past. But we must always be vigilant against sinking back into a quagmire of petty parochialism and private prejudice. It is a time where all must become, in Malraux’s words, “…les citoyens et citoyennes engagés…” We have an opportunity and a responsibility to build a new vision for this new era based on a generosity of spirit bred in the sure knowledge that only through our deeds and daring will we overcome the division and discord of the past few decades.
The work of Marchand and Trudeau and Lesage and yes, even Levesque, is not yet done. The ongoing fight against what Jean-Paul Sartre called “…the teaching of contempt…” is not yet over. But we have the collective will and the collective genius to do it. We must keep this rendezvous with our own destiny for if we fail we will be condemned to suffer the fate that Mazzini warned of so many years ago, “Si voi non fate, altri faranno, e senza voi e contro voi” (If you do not act, others will, without you and against you) and we will never emerge from the cauldron of our ordeal with civility.