Jacques Parizeau: Quebec’s last great statesman

The sovereigntist stalwart leaves a significant legacy in Quebec
Photo: Mariannlï

Following the death of former Parti Québécois leader and Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, this editorial was released yesterday by Ricochet’s French edition. Now translated into English, it’s an important window into the strong feelings Quebecers hold about the legacy of this sovereigntist leader.

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Barely 24 hours have passed since the death of Jacques Parizeau, but already the tragedy has left a void in Quebec’s political landscape. His passing marks the end of a generation of great statesmen, and as the last of this generation passes it seems a little too easy to point out how underwhelming are his successors.

Quebec has lost not only an unfailing defender of Quebec’s independence — although he was probably the movement’s most pragmatic flag bearer — but also a defender of what he himself called a “sense of statesmanship.”

Globalization ‘in service of the world’

Despite a rich political heritage, it is true that Parizeau was never unanimously supported by those in progressive circles. An emblematic figure of the Quiet Revolution, he was the architect of the Caisse de dépôt et de placement and the Société générale de financement, as well as the Quebec Pension Plan. He remained a capitalist, influenced by Keynesian thinking, which advocates for wealth redistribution and sees the state as both an economic engine and subordinate to human needs. In an October 2011 interview with Marie-France Bazzo, he said, “Even if globalization carries with it enormous advantages, the role of the state is to protect its people.” He embraced the idea that the state remains the ultimate shield against the inevitable deregulation of world financial markets, and that society’s foundations need to be reinforced to withstand the weight of that crushing Leviathan.

The best example in recent memory is his virulent critique of the Plan Nord, that vulgar imitation of a political legacy proposed by the Liberals. Parizeau criticized the form, not the substance. He himself set out an alternative proposal for Quebec’s economic development, which included requiring companies to contribute financially alongside the government, and guaranteeing the state a seat on the boards of directors of companies hoping to exploit mineral reserves, oil deposits, and forests. A “Plan Parizeau” that would certainly have faced stiff resistance — entirely legitimate — from environmentalists and Aboriginal activists.

His vision for an independent Quebec was more republican than revolutionary; he hoped to see his new country develop within international institutions. The goal was ambitious: Quebec would finally be able to compare itself to countries like Norway or Sweden, and to take its place in the grand community of nations.

He was a man who acknowledged his own mistakes. The sociologist Jacques B. Gélinas, author of the striking essay published by Écosociété called “Le néolibre-échange: L'hypercollusion business-politique” (Neo-liberal free trade: The business-political hypercollusion) bears witness to this fact: Gélinas criticizes Parizeau’s agreement to the secretly negotiated NAFTA, while highlighting how Parizeau made amends by supporting young activists at the 2001 Summit of the Americas.

In short, Parizeau had a sense of stateliness.

Fellowship of mercenaries

Parizeau’s vision may have failed to find consensus, but it nevertheless stayed pragmatic and more focused on economic realism than utopic desire. It is a vision worth remembering for how it allowed millions of Quebecers of all stripes to dream, in stark contrast to the current political class that pollutes the political landscape of La Belle Province. A fellowship of mercenaries is in power now, busy selling off Quebec for a pittance in royalties and a few brown envelopes; an arrogant elite from privileged backgrounds who justify the pillaging of our natural resources and widespread austerity measures by pointing to an electoral majority that is dubious in a political system such as ours.

Our current premier, let us not forget, made the most of his return to private life by going to work for a dictatorship and now wants to give lessons on democracy to young people who are outraged and worried about the future they are facing.

So dies the sense of stateliness.

Moving on from a regrettable declaration

Parizeau’s death will remain, alas, stained by the bad faith of several of his adversaries, obsessed as ever with his remarks on October 30, 1995, when he blamed the defeat of the sovereignty referendum on “money and the ethnic vote.”

Those detractors with selective memory seem to have forgotten that Jacques Parizeau was a fierce opponent of the Charter of Values. And that he was a bitter critic of the current Parti Québécois, which he compared to a “field of ruins,” not without a certain sadness for the dying remains of Quebec’s largest sovereigntist party. They don’t see the irony of considering him a “nobody,” in his own words, “while Pierre Elliott Trudeau imprisoned hundreds of Quebecers and yet is considered a great man.”

Scattered successors

Will the sovereigntist cause survive the death of Parizeau? Of course, but today it is more divided than ever between parties fighting for seats in the National Assembly and ideologically divided partisan groups. On Radio-Canada, Chantal Hébert named Jean-Martin Aussant his political successor — an appropriate choice, considering that Parizeau supported Aussant’s [hardline sovereigntist party] Option Nationale in the 2012 provincial election. But unless Aussant gets back in the game and returns to the political battlefield [he left politics for a corporate job in London, England in 2013], the symbolic coronation will have been too little, too late.

Jacques Parizeau leaves a political legacy that is consistent on only one point: The man known in Quebec as “Monsieur” had a sense of stateliness.

Unfortunately, he remains for the moment the only one who does.

Editors’ note: Thanks to Jacob Schweda for translating this editorial into English, and to the newly formed Ricochet translation team, who will be working to translate an increasing amount of our content over the coming months.
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