Jacques Parizeau has died at age 84. His death was announced by his wife Lisette Lapointe earlier today. Parizeau, whether one agreed with him or not about Québec sovereignty and the fracturing of Canada, was an intellectual with sophisticated technocratic talents and European sensibilities who has to be seen as one of the major builders of the modern Québec state including its enormous pension fund, the Caisse de dépôt et placement and its social democratic welfare state, as well as the notion of maîtres chez nous championed by Québec nationalists of every stripe. The largely federalist English speaking minorities of Québec were the inevitable victims of this political movement and Parizeau regrettably in the bitter moments of defeat following the 1995 referendum had crossed the line in blaming “money and the ethnic vote” for the defeat of the yes side. This was , of course a very divisive false claim that contributed to much ill will in Québec following the remarks and was a wound that never completely healed among the minorities that compose the English and French speaking federalist community. Some of these tensions resurfaced in the controversial debate over the Québec charter of rights that played a significant role in the last Québec election. I first learned about Parizeau and his decision to join the sovereignty option directly from René Lévesque when I chaired a conference on International affairs at the University of Manitoba to which I had invited Lévesque to appear in January 1968 as one of the featured speakers on the topic of Québec and Canada. He told me he was in the process of recruiting a very important talented economist to join his movement and that he would be making a major contribution to his credibility in the months to come.This , of course, turned out to be very true as the combination of Lévesque’s charismatic passion and Parizeau’s powerful cool intellect and his business connections was an irresistible attraction for many Québecers in the years to come. Parizeau as Premier of Québec seven years after Lévesque’s death with the brilliant oratory of Lucien Bouchard brought Québec to the very brink of a referendum victory in 1995. Had he won it is claimed that he would have immediately proclaimed the independence of Québec with the approval of France who would have sponsored Québec’s membership in the European union. Fortunately despite some 80,000 federalist votes that were not counted, the yes side lost by the narrowest of margins and the sovereigntist moment passed for the next twenty years.
Parizeau will go down in history as a great Quebecer, a man who showed that a modern intellectual with technocratic talents can make a major contribution to the governance of his society. Whether or not he will emerge as one of the founders of a new sovereign country must await the outcome of any future referendum and the verdict of history. My condolences to his family and friends.