“It has been my lot to run the whole gamut of prejudices in Canada. In 1896 I was excommunicated by the Roman priests, and in 1917 by Protestant parsons.”
~ Sir Wilfrid Laurier
There is no doubt that Pierre Pettigrew’s “loser” comments about PQ leaders were crude, petty and reflective of the Martin administration’s raging Nixonian insecurities. However, it was disappointing - to say the least - that today’s Montreal Gazette op-ed by PQ militant Josée Legault, entitled “Another Yves Michaud”, engaged in the low limitation of political equivalency by suggesting that André Boisclair may become a potential iconic sovereigntist martyr along the lines of Yves Michaud.
The attack by Pettigrew was coarse politics. It will backfire on the federal Liberals as Legault wrote. But it was inappropriate for her to equate that with what she claims was a backfire caused by Lucien Bouchard’s attack against Michaud.
André Boisclair has always remained steadfast in his fidelity to inclusive and pluralistic values in the fight for independence. As did René Levesque and as did Bouchard. Michaud on the other hand, represented the narrow circumstance of those sovereigntists who found comfort in Parizeau’s “ethnics and money” comments. And Bouchard’s attack on that mindset, particularly in his resignation speech, was a watershed moment of high drama and bold resolve that elevated the civility of political debate about what an independent Québec should be all about.
On the 5th of December 2000 in an interview with Paul Arcand of CKAC radio, Michaud stated that Jews feel that they are the only people to have suffered in the history of humanity. On December 13th 2000 he presented a memorandum to the Estates-General on language and argued that 12 sections of voting in Côte-Saint-Luc, a predominantly Jewish district on the Island of Montreal, had not given a single vote for sovereignty at the referendum of 1995. He concluded from this that these were "ethnic votes against the sovereignty of Quebec". He reiterated the views on Jews he had expressed on radio on December 5th. He also accused the B’nai Brith organisation of being extremist, anti-Quebec and anti-sovereigntist. There were other words he used too distasteful to bear repetition. The essence of his position was that anti-sovereigntist votes by non-francophones were somehow illegitimate.
The National Assembly condemned Michaud. Infighting in the PQ stoked by hardline supporters of Michaud eventually led Bouchard to resign in disgust with his own party. And in his parting speech he spoke these historic words:
“When issues are matters of principle, there is no room for negotiation. We touch here clearly at the heart of what is essential. First, I wish to affirm with absolutely no qualifications, that citizens of Quebec can exercise their right to vote, in which ever way they want, without being accused of intolerance. Secondly, that the Holocaust, this systematic elimination of a people, the negation of human conscience and dignity constitutes the ultimate crime. One cannot blame Jews to have been traumatized by it. This unspeakable tragedy cannot withstand comparisons.”
“Cannot withstand comparisons.” That is the heart of the matter. For the great and agonizing question is not Quebec sovereignty. But that the vote for sovereignty must be based on what truly makes Quebec a distinct society. And that distinction is the patrimony of an unequalled progressive political tradition.
From Louis-Joseph Papineau’s emancipation of all minorities in 1837, twenty years before Britain; through Louis Lafontaine’s experiments in responsible government in 1856 that were the first in the British Empire; to Laurier’s internationalist and inclusive vision at the turn of the 20th century; through Jean Marchand’s heroic struggles for labour at Lac Megantic; to Jean Lesage’s “Révolution tranquille” that produced the “équipe de tonnerre” arguably the finest cabinet in modern times; through René Levesque’s dedication to liberal pluralism and democracy in his fight for independence; and finally to Pierre-Elliot Trudeau’s guarantee of the sovereignty of the individual in the Charter of Rights.
This history is what makes Quebec distinct. It is only on this basis that sovereigntists can make a credible case for a new nation. Not on some perceived injustice to “native” francophones that was far less than that perpetrated on Quebec’s aboriginal peoples by the imperial representatives of the King of France and then yet again against aboriginals and francophones by the King of England. Not on some misplaced fidelity to “sang et langue”. And certainly not out of the fear-mongering of extremists who see cabals of “ethnics” around every corner that they consider have no right to a say in Quebec’s future.
As Quebecers we must all guard against any moral relativism between the legitimate expressions of liberal pluralists like Boisclair, and the prejudices of parochial demagoguery of the Michauds. If we fail in our vigilance against exclusiveness and intolerance then we too will be judged by history as unable to withstand comparisons.