Jean-François Lisée: The chronicler of Quebec’s revolution is now part of the separatist cause

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Jean-François Lisée: The chronicler of Quebec’s revolution is now part of the separatist cause

William Johnson

Media Magazine (Canadian Association of Journalists) Fall 1994

Quebec journalist Jean-François Lisée set out in 1990 to write a true epic: the story of how the new country of Quebec was going to be founded. But, when Robert Bourassa disappointed his hopes, Lisée wrote another book or, rather, tow books, also epics, and then decided to help bring about Quebec’s independence himself. He joined Jacques Parizeau’s staff in September as an adviser to the secessionist Premier.

« At first, my book wasn’t going to be Le Tricheur, it was going to be: Robert Bourassa, Father of the New Quebec in Spite of Himself, » Lisée told Yves Boisvert for the July-August issuer of Le Trente, the French-language magazine for journalists.

Quebec was in turmoil following the failure of the Meech Lake accord. Bourassa stood up in the National Assembly and made what sounded much like a declaration of independent intent: « English Canada must understand very clearly that, say or do what it might, Quebec is today and forever a distinct society, free and able to pursue its destiny. » Jacques Parizeau held out his hand to « my prime minister. » Quebec was on its way to the Bélanger-Campeau Commission, to a referendum on sovereignty, and to independence.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. Lisée even lobbied Bourassa and Parizeau to appoint him as a full member of the Bélanger-Campeau commission. They didn’t respond. Lisée did obtain, though, Bourassa’s co-operation to get the inside story of events as they unfolded, with the proviso that he could publish what he learned only after the referendum. This was like the making of a book that Lisée had much admired, Theodore H. White’s chronicle of John Kennedy’s victory over Richard Nixon, The Making of the President 1960. But the subject was even grander: not just the making of a president, but also the birth of a nation.

Except that the promised high epic turned into a bad farce. Bourassa « cheated. » He misled his caucus, his party, his people and Lisée. He led his people to Charlottetown instead of the promised land. The Québécois journalist had dreamed of writing, in his native land, the equivalent of American journalist John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, the fist-person account of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. (In his apartment in Washington, where he worked as a freelancer in the late 1980s, Lisée had a huge poster of Reds, the film in which Warren Beatty played John Reed participating in Lenin’s coup d’état).

Now, reality had turned into a bad movie. For a while, Lisée despaired of producing a book, as his material spoiled. But then he rallied. Lisée pilloried Bourassa for aborting history and strangling the nascent nation. In two volumes, Le Tricheur (578 pages) and Le Naufrageur (716 pages), he unmasked all of Bourassa’s evasions, his feints, his deceptions, his devious leadership of the Quebec people through the valley of illusions.

Those two books, in my opinion, offer the most comprehensive and revealing account ever written in Canada of an important historical period. From the time of their publication this year they were immediate classics. Lisée managed to get Bourassa, his close associates and all the major players in the post-Meech effervescence to reveal themselves as public figures have never before been revealed in Canada.

Lisée’s twin volumes are in the image of the journalist himself: passionate, immoderate, almost grotesquely comprehensive, opinionated yet always striving to build up the big picture. And always, never less than intelligent in the analysis and stylish in the writing.

Make no mistake, Jean-François Lisée is a phenomenon. Don’t be fooled by the boyish, mischievous manner, the bright blue eyes, the quick grin, the easy friendliness. This is quite possibly the single most talented journalist living in Canada today. Or he was. In September, Lisée left the ranks of journalism temporarily, until after the revolution, to join the staff of Jacques Parizeau as an adviser. In some Quebec quarters, his defection to partisan politics caused a minor scandal.

« What ad been announced as investigative journalism and as a model of journalistic integrity really belonged to another category, that of militant journalism, » wrote La Presses’s chief editorialist, Alain Dubuc. « The scandal is not that he went from journalism to politics but that he was engaged in both at the same time ». (NDR: In an open letter, Lisée pointed out that Dubuc did not have a shred of evidence to support that last accusation. Dubuc did not reply. Alain Saulnier, president of Quebe’s federation of journalists, publicly defended Lisée’s integrity.)

There is no question that Lisée wrote Le Tricheur and Le Naufrageur as a committed sovereignist. He left no doubt in either book about where he stood. He could, with the same facts, have denounced Bourassa as a « cheater » who was elected as a federalist in 1985 and 1989 but soon led his party and his province into the period of greatest separatist effervescence in the history of Quebec. By the time he stepped down in January 1994, he had helped elect the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa and had set the stage for a Parti Québécois victory in Quebec. Federalism, under him, reached its nadir.

Lisée chose to tell his story from one perspective, and that was entirely legitimate. He wrote, not as a reporter covering an event divested of overt partisanship, but as a journalist overtly exercising his right to an ideological commitment.

But there is a more fundamental corruption than partisanship at the heart of Lisée’s work: it is what French philosopher Julien Benda described in his 1926 as La trahison des clercs, the treason of the intellectuals. That is far more significant than commitment to a political party. Benda described and deplored intellectuals who sacrificed the universal values of the mind to political passion, to commitment to the nation, the race or to class.

Lisée did not compromise his ethical standards and critical judgement to a degree comparable to the many intellectuals who, in the first half of the 20th century, joined the racist Action française, or the fascist or communist movements. But this former Maoist (he was active in the movement for two years, wile at university, as he acknowledges) displays still some of the signs of the true believer.

What is remarkable about Le Tricheur and Le Naufrageur is that this highly intelligent, sophisticated and critical professional observer shows himself utterly uncritical towards Quebec nationalism. itself. He simply accepts its premises as given, part of where he is coming from.

His saga opens with the failure of Meech Lake that is the catalyst of the two years of ferment which Lisée studied. Yet three is not the slightest critical judgement on Meech’s premises. For Lisée, in rejecting Meech the rest of Canada was rejecting Quebecer’s right to be distinct, unique. Such crude categorisation hardly explains the principled objections of a Pierre Trudeau, a Clyde Wells or a Sharon Carstairs.

Just as Quebec nationalism is for him a matter of faith, so is its implicit correlative, the stereotyping of English-speaking Canadians as the adversary, the opponent to be overcome, the enemy of an independent Quebec.

Lisée is too sophisticated to carry an animus against individual English-speaking Canadians. While he was in Washington, he maintained close friendly relations with several English-speaking journalists from Canada. But look at his books on the events of 1990 to 1992 and you find there crude and hostile caricatures of English-speaking Canada.

A whole string of examples could be given. Let one suffice. Lisée recalls the few older, marginal opponents of bilingualism in Ontario who, in the fall of 1990, demonstrated in Brockville by trampling on the Quebec flag.

Lisée chose to treat this episode as revealing the fundamental attitude of English Canada. Here was English Canada mirrored, symbolised. « How could you better illustrate the votes of Sault-Sainte-Marie (the first of 40 Ontario towns who then declared their English unilingualism, despite the presence of French-speaking minorities in their midst) , Newfoundland’s cancellation of its ratification of Meech, the refusal, poll after poll, by a majority of anglophones to recognize that a distinct society existed in Quebec ? The image of Brockville was powerful because it was true. »

True to what ? Never mind that, for some 30 years, all of Canada had let Quebec set the national political agenda, and had invested billions of dollars and uncounted time and effort to search for an accommodation that would satisfy Quebec without betraying principle or interest. For Lisée, that one scene was an epiphany in which English Canada showed its true face. Brockville’s flag-trampling was the prototype. (…)

Lisée’s political passion which corrupts otherwise exemplary work is not unique. Other Quebec journalists who have written books in recent years also offer examples of La trahison des clercs. Michel Vastel’s 1990 book, Trudeau le Québécois, and Claude-V. Marsolais’ Le référendum confisqué of 1992 come to mind.

But Lisée is a journalist of world-class calibre. He is only 36, and already has a dazzling body of work published, including The Eye of the Eagle, on relations between Quebec and the United States, which won the Governor-General’s Award for 1990.

Whatever happens in the real world over the next two years, we can look forward to a fascinating account when it’s all over. Who knows, Lisée might yet get to write his Dix jours qui ont ébranlé le Canada. Or, failing that, there might be another book on how the dream of Quebec’s independence was once again betrayed.

When he wrote this piece, Bill Johnson was a columnist for Montreal’s daily The Gazette. He went on to become the controversial president of the lobby group Alliance Québec and then when back to writing in 2000.