Jacques Parizeau’s 1995 referendum speech altered sovereignty movement

MONTREAL — Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau’s comments about “money and the ethnic vote” the night the Yes side lost the 1995 referendum never stopped haunting him and the Parti Quebecois.

“It’s true that we were beaten, but fundamentally by what?” Parizeau asked the large and boisterous crowd the night of Oct. 30, 1995. “By money and the ethnic vote, essentially,” he replied, throwing his hands up and shaking his head.

The sovereigntist movement changed that night — at least symbolically — said Francine Pelletier, a columnist with Montreal Le Devoir and independent filmmaker behind a 2003 documentary on Parizeau called “Public Enemy Number One.”

Parizeau’s words “spurred the old sleeping dogs on the right,” she said, and were a harbinger of how the PQ and the independence movement would shift course from their progressive roots and towards promoting a project centered on identity and nationalism.

Pelletier said that project culminated with the PQ’s proposed secularism charter in 2013, which banned public sector workers from wearing certain religious clothing. The proposed law was labelled racist and intolerant, dividing the province and helping the PQ lose power after less than two years in office.

Parizeau’s words in 1995 also ensured he would be vilified in many circles in the rest of Canada as much as he would be revered in Quebec.

He brushed off suggestions his infamous speech was a mistake when Pelletier interviewed him in 2003, but Parizeau finally explained himself during a radio interview in 2013 where he said the remark was referring to 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 Montreal radio station 98.5 FM.

Social media networks were filled with comments Tuesday praising the former PQ leader, but also with messages of scorn for the “racist” man who came unnervingly close to breaking up the country.

Pelletier said Parizeau’s 1995 remarks did not reflect the man he was or his strong social democratic roots.

“It was a tragedy for the movement, but it was especially a tragedy for him because it pinned him for something he was not,” she said.

Pelletier said Parizeau should be remembered as someone who stayed loyal to his cause and his convictions, while his former party has employed a strategy that was “all over the map.”

Michael Behiels, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, said the traditional nationalists in the PQ ranks used Parizeau’s comments to help justify turning the party more to the right.

But Behiels said Parizeau’s words likely came from a place of frustration and anger at losing a referendum — and a life’s work — by such a close margin of several thousand votes.

“I think he thought that night there would never be another opportunity in his lifetime (to separate) and events have proven him right,” he said.

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press

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