Jacques Parizeau

In 1994 voters in the Canadian province of Quebec elected the Parti Québecois to a majority of seats in the National Assembly. The victory put PQ president Jacques Parizeau (born 1930) in the post of premier.

On September 12, 1994, voters in the Canadian province of Quebec elected the Parti Québecois (PQ) to 77 of 125 seats comprising the National Assembly, that province's legislature. The victory put PQ president Jacques Parizeau, a longtime advocate of independence for the largely French-speaking province, in the post of premier. Jacques Parizeau had repeatedly asserted that a vote for the PQ was a vote for independence. His promise at the time of his election: putting a referendum on secession before the voters of Quebec within a year. Although, the election results were seen more as a reflection of Quebec's anger at the ruling Liberal Party, which had ruled the province for nine years, rather than a vote for Quebec's secession; a referendum vote did take place on October 30, 1995. The results yielded a nearly even split between the Yes and No sides with a strong majority of Quebec's nonfrancophone population voting "No" to secession. Parizeau announced his intention to resign his position the next day.

The Parti Québecois was founded in 1968 by René Lévesque, a former Liberal Party minister, who, along with a growing number of French-speaking Québecois, as the inhabitants of the province are known, had come to believe that the province must secede from the Canadian federation. Quebec is the largest in area of Canada's ten provinces and territories. Its population of just over seven million makes it the second most populous after Ontario. More than 80 percent of Québecois speak French as their first language and many of these feel isolated and oppressed in a North America dominated by English-speaking people. They believe that the only way to maintain their cultural identity is to separate from Canada and form their own country. For nearly two decades, Parizeau has been in the vanguard of those seeking secession.

The forces aligned against secession, however, are formidable and consist of a reported 60 percent of the population of Quebec, a vast majority of Canadians as a whole, and major powers in the media. One month before the election, Business Week quoted John McCallum, chief economist at the Royal Bank of Canada, as saying that international markets "are taking a dim view of Canada" in light of growing separatist support. Brian I. Neysmith, president of the Canadian Bond Rating Service, said in the same publication, "The markets will react very negatively if the PQ wins a large majority. International investors will decide that Canada is not the safe haven it used to be." The weekly Canadian news magazine Maclean's was very blunt in its pre-election appraisal of Parizeau and his separatist rhetoric. In a scathing article titled "A Legend In His Own Mind" a writer for the source remarked, "The delusion in Canada resides mainly in the brain of Jacques Parizeau. He has become a victim of his own propaganda. He actually believes it, a man walking around in a vacuum of his own creation." And: "Jacques Parizeau is operating in a dreamland. As most longtime bureaucrats do. If he wins, as probable, his election, he is going to have to contend with real people. They are called Canadians. Our only wish is good luck." Still, the new premier called a referendum and, when it was rejected, predicted that the issue would be revisited in the future.

Parizeau was born on August 9, 1930, into a wealthy, well-connected family. His great-grandfather made the family fortune in lumber late in the 19th century and served for a while in the provincial legislature. Parizeau's grandfather had been a distinguished surgeon and the dean of the medical faculty at the University of Montreal. His father was a professor of history at the University of Montreal's business school, the école des Hautes études Commerciales (HEC), and was cofounder of a brokerage and insurance firm that became one of the most prosperous in Quebec and greatly expanded the Parizeau wealth. In the 1970s the firm was reorganized under a holding company named Sordacan. Today, Sordacan is the 17th-largest insurance broker in the world and is run by Jacques's younger brother Robert. Interestingly, Jacques himself was given no shares in the family company, a mysterious edict directed by his father for reasons unknown. His mother was active in the women's rights movement of the 1930s, fighting for suffrage and more humane working conditions for women. During World War II she received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her relief work at home.

Parizeau was educated at exclusive private schools and the Collége Stanislas in suburban Montreal. From there he enrolled in the HEC where he studied economics and distinguished himself as an excellent student. He then went to Paris and to the London School of Economics (LSE), where he earned a Ph.D. under the tutelage of the Nobel laureate James Edward Meade. While in England, Parizeau developed a strong British accent and a lordly manner that have earned him a measure of scorn. As Maclean's stated, "[He] is a delightful man to view. Highly educated with an Oxford accent and a vocabulary that would put most Canadians to shame, he has the certainty of an economist—an economist once having been defined as someone who is good at numbers but doesn't have the personality to be an accountant." Even publications not so overtly hostile to the premier have commented on this quality of seemingly aloof erudition, and it has been reported that his political handlers have tried for years to get him to appear more approachable. The New York Times reported, "Only after giving himself up to image builders in the seven-week election campaign just ended did he discard his three-piece Saville Row pinstripes for sports jackets and learn to trim often ponderous, professorial speeches into sound bites."

After graduating from the LSE, Parizeau returned to Canada and took a position as a lecturer in economics at the HEC. In the late 1950s, Parizeau began working in government, while retaining his chair at the HEC. (He gave it up only in 1989.) His first position was as a researcher for the Bank of Canada, the federal, government-owned bank comparable to the American Federal Reserve. From this post, Parizeau became involved in economic planning on the national and then provincial level. In 1961 he became an economic adviser to Quebec's provincial government, then headed by Liberal premier Jean Lesage. Here, Parizeau played a substantial role in the so-called Quiet Revolution, a series of sweeping economic reforms that brought wide socialist reform to the province. In 1966 the Liberals were ousted by the Union Nationale, but Parizeau was retained by the new government as a consultant to the Council of Ministers.

Parizeau joined the Parti Québecois in 1969 and began working in earnest for separation. In 1970 he became chairman of the party's national executive council. Four years later the PQ adopted a platform that called for a referendum on separation within a year of winning a majority. In 1976 the PQ was swept into office, largely as a result of the call for a referendum. The first PQ government was headed by René Lévesque with Parizeau serving as finance minister and president of the Treasury Board. During this administration, Parizeau is credited with instituting the Quebec Stock Savings Plan, which provided tax incentives to investors in small, Quebec-based businesses. He is blamed, on the other hand, for the ill-advised decision to nationalize the asbestos industry just before the industry collapsed due to reports of links between asbestos and cancer. He also oversaw a 500 percent increase in the budget deficit and a 600 percent increase in the provincial debt. The promised vote on secession took place in 1980, four years after the PQ won election. As in the debate which took place over a decade later, emotions ran high prior to the vote and both sides campaigned fiercely. The vote was 60 to 40 percent against secession.

In 1984 Lévesque announced his intention to drop secession from the PQ platform in favor of negotiations with the federal government in the Canadian capital of Ottawa on other options. Parizeau and several other die-hard separatists resigned. In 1985, amid deepening economic troubles in the province and a void in PQ leadership as Lévesque grew gravely ill, the Liberals were voted back into office. Two years later, as the PQ continued to flounder, Parizeau announced his intention to seek the party's leadership. He was alone among contenders for the post to advocate a total separation from Canada. In 1988 he was elected party leader.

Prior to the 1989 provincial elections Parizeau again asserted that in the event of a PQ victory, he would hold a referendum on secession. In an interview with Maclean's he pleaded his case that the time was right and tried to counter arguments that secession would be economically devastating: "[Businesses] know that sovereignty is not a handicap to growth. The Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement has changed their perspective considerably. Having access to the large American market leaves the mind far more serene to discuss sovereignty for Quebec." Despite Parizeau's predictions, the party lost the elections. Parizeau, however, was elected to his old seat in the National Assembly and continued his campaign for independence. His new target for attack was the Meech Lake accord, an agreement reached between Quebec and the federal government that granted Quebec constitutional recognition as a "distinct society." Parizeau objected to the accord as a trick by Ottawa to defuse nationalist support for independence by granting token recognition. The accord had to be approved by all the Canadian provinces by June 22, 1990, and when that deadline passed with two provinces having refused to approve it, many Québecois felt shunned by the majority English-speaking Canadians and support for independence skyrocketed. Polls showed 60 percent of Québecois favoring the establishment of an independent Quebec—the highest numbers ever reported.

On July 24, 1994, Liberal party premier Daniel Johnson called for provincial elections to be held on September 12. Parizeau immediately went on the offensive, calling for a referendum on sovereignty. One of the principal issues regarding separation was the cost to Quebec, and this became a major theme of the campaign as it was waged through the summer. Many economists had figured the cost as enormous—far too burdensome to justify. Parizeau countered that secession would save $3 billion (Canadian dollars) just in eliminating federal duplication and waste, and that the money saved could then be spent on job creation and other measures to bolster Quebec's anemic economy. Johnson, as quoted in the New Republic, countered, "There are contradictions, paradoxes, make-believe appeals to people's gullibility. … These people will say anything to get elected." Eric Kierans, a longtime Canadian cabinet minister, told Maclean's, "There was a time when Parizeau had a sound grasp of economics, then his politics clouded his vision. Now, he's someone with no sympathy at all for Canada."

Other sticking points for separatists were the amount of Canada's national debt the new country would assume, the drawing of boundaries, and Quebec's status vis-à-vis the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Parizeau assumed that Quebec would immediately be granted signatory status in NAFTA, but the New Republic reported that "the Clinton administration responded that the province's place in NAFTA … was not assured." A further impediment to the realization of Parizeau's dream was the Cree Indians, who inhabit vast areas in the north of the province. They claim title to huge amounts of land and were not at all calmed by Quebec's claims to respect their rights of self-determination. There were also sizable enclaves of English-speaking citizens of Quebec who intimated that their vote would be to remain associated with Canada.

Parizeau was unmoved by all the logistical, economic, and legal obstacles so many insisted would confound any realistic expectations of separation. For him it was a matter of cultural survival, and he felt that the sooner a referendum was held, the better. The New York Times quoted him as telling reporters after the 1994 election in which he was elected premier of Quebec, "We have lost a great deal of time in Quebec, for many years, in these never-ending debates. There has been a price to pay for this uncertainty. Let's decide." While the resulting October 1995 referendum was defeated, a majority of French-speaking citizens of Quebec did indicate by their vote that they desired more power for their province. According to Barry Came, Maclean's, Parizeau forecasted a new push for independence, saying "Don't forget that three-fifths of us voted Yes. It wasn't quite enough, but very soon it will be enough. Our country is within our grasp." Parizeau believes that getting Montreal's sputtering economy back on track is a way to convince Quebeckers to vote for idependence.

Parizeau announced his resignation on October 31, 1995; but, he faced leaving his office on the coattails of scandal. According to Maclean's, "At issue are 25 research contracts worth $2.7 million that were handed out … by [Richard] Le Hir's [former minister of restructuring] nowdismantled … department for work on 44 studies examining various aspects of Quebec sovereignty with a view to providing the PQ government with ammunition in the referendum battle." Additionally, in September 1995 Quebec's Liberal Opposition charged that some of the contracts had been awarded "without tender to companies linked to senior employees working for Le Hir's department." Parizeau referred the matter to Guy Breton, Quebec's Auditor General, who confirmed the illegalities in a report issued on December 5, 1995. Breton also cited Pierre Campeau, deputy minister in the restructuring department, and Claude Lafrance, a consultant. He disclosed that other officials in Parizeau's government were aware of the potential scandal. Yet, they reacted by either firing or forcing the whistle-blowers to resign.

Although Parizeau responded quickly to the report by initiating several actions including increasing the scope of contracts to be examined further by Breton, Liberals allegedly uncovered another contract which involved Parizeau, himself. This contract awarded $90, 000 to Yvon Martineau, later appointed president of Hydro Quebec, for three-months work as a juridical counsellor for referendum planning. Breton's final report, originally due in January, was released on March 14, 1996, after Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, succeeded Parizeau and was sworn in as premier on January 29, 1996. In the report, Breton reiterated that contracts involving millions of dollars were issued in violation of conflict-of-interest laws.

According to Elizabeth Thompson, a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, "While auditor-general Guy Breton was reluctant to blame anyone, he said Parizeau, Le Hir and former secretary-general Louis Bernard were responsible for overseeing what went on. In practice, however, Breton said he found no evidence that they were involved in wrongdoing or were aware of what was going on under their noses." The reaction of those named in the report was to point blame away from themselves. It had been hoped that Parizeau's departure from office would defuse the scandal. According to Maclean's, "there [were] many in the PQ who [were] breathing a sigh of relief, hoping that when Parizeau [went], he [would] take l'affaire Le Hir with him." But with the Surete du Quebec's economic-crimes squad conducting an investigation, it appears l'affaire Le Hir will outlive Parizeau's political career.

Further Reading on Jacques Parizeau

Business Week, August 8, 1994; November 7, 1994.

Christian Science Monitor, May 30, 1996.

Detroit Free Press, September 13, 1994; September 19, 1994.

Facts on File, February 1, 1996, pp. 56-57.

Maclean's, September 25, 1989; August 15, 1994; September 12, 1994; November 6, 1995, p. 18; December 25, 1995, p. 38.

Montreal Gazette, January 9, 1996, p. A8; March 14, 1996, p. A11.

New Republic, September 19, 1994; September 26, 1994.

New York Times, September 14, 1994; September 15, 1994.

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