It's a shame having to return to Mordecai Richler on the first anniversary of his death. Last year I made the point that he was one of those fiction writers who make terrible journalists.
This is especially true of his attack on French-speaking Quebeckers in the book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, a misleading polemic that is more than a little tainted by prejudice.
Judging by the orgy of Richler worship which erupted this past week, the Canadian intelligentsia prefers fairy tales. Are we such a fragile country that we can't acknowledge a man can be both a fine writer of fiction and an imperfect human being?
Especially troubling was a Robert Fulford column (National Post, June 15) which portrays Richler as a moral hero and "friend of liberty." This served as a platform to set out Fulford's extraordinarily retrograde views on Quebec's language laws. He believes that Bill 101 (which obliges business owners to use French signage alongside English) is "stupid" and its author, Camille Laurin, a "clown."
Surely at this late date Canada requires more from its public intellectuals than name-calling. As indeed we ought to have required more from Richler when he turned his pen to polemics.
Let's briefly review the Richler problem. A year after the appearance of Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, a professor of Quebec literature named Ben Shek critiqued it in a Jewish magazine called Outlook. He did not mince words. Richler's allegation that the Parti Québécois had borrowed the Nazi youth song Tomorrow Belongs to Me (from the musical Cabaret) was a "lie." The bald statement that Louis Joseph Papineau's Patriot Party, during the rebellion of 1837, had the "stated aim" of slaughtering Quebec's Jews was not only false, but an "attempt . . . to smear francophones."
Shek, who spent most of his academic career in Quebec, acknowledges the reality of anti-Semitism in that province but wonders why Richler insisted it was worse there than anywhere else. "Those of us who grew up in Toronto," writes Shek, "well remember the covenants barring Jews from buying or renting property." He also notes a double standard where Richler downplays the bigotry of fellow English speakers, which he "never refers to as racist, a term reserved for the Québécois."
Shek is not the only Jewish writer who has asked these questions. Normand Lester, in his Black Book of English Canada (which I am translating for McClelland and Stewart), points out that Richler set the standard for other English-speaking Quebec Jews who have falsely associated French-Canadians with fascism.
The canard about the Parti Québécois using the Nazi youth song from Cabaret was published in 1977 in the U.S. periodical Commentary by two McGill professors, Ruth Wisse and Irwin Cotler.
The song in question was actually an innocuous anthem by Montreal composer Stéphane Venne.
Cotler says today that he accepts responsibility for the error, though he did not write that part of the article. And though he is uncomfortable with the matter and apologized in a letter to René Lévesque, he did not do so publicly.
Why is there this cleavage between many English-speaking Quebec Jews, who repeat damaging allegations about the French without checking them, and French-speaking Quebec Jews who feel solidarity with other francophones and resent the attacks?
The dividing line in this complex story is not race at all, but rather language. It is because Quebec's English-speaking Jews are allied with Montreal's old WASP elite that they find it easy to attack French speakers with disinformation and half-truths. And they have little contact with francophone Jews like Normand Lester who might help set the record straight.
"Spokespersons for the Jewish community . . . have violently, and rightly, denounced the anti-Semitism of French-Canadians," said historian Gérard Bouchard at a 1997 colloquium called Jews and French Canadians in Quebec Society. "But they have closed their eyes to the same prejudices when these came from English-speaking Quebeckers . . . the Jewish elites have ended up adopting the Anglo-Saxon elite's views about French-Canadians. And we have come to feel that francophones are subject to a greater vigilance where anti-Semitism is concerned than are their English-speaking compatriots."
Lester goes on to explain how this double standard has been taken up and exploited by English Canada as part of the campaign against separatism.
This is a complicated story. But that's what makes it, and Canada, interesting. It's the kind of thing public intellectuals are supposed to sort out.
Those who look at the facts will find it very difficult to describe Richler, however great his artistic achievements, as a "friend of liberty."