When ultra-nationalist poet Gaston Miron died in 1996, the Quebec government staged a state funeral. Premier Lucien Bouchard, eloquent, led the parade of grieving adulators.
On Tuesday, Quebec's most renowned writer died in Montreal where he was born. No state funeral, no fulsome praise from a proud premier for Mordecai Richler. Instead, the silence of Bernard Landry, the laconic statement of Culture Minister Diane Lemieux (who recently discovered that Ontario has no culture), spoke volumes.
The difference in treatment for the two sons of Quebec, one honoured by his government for writing anglophobic, anti-Canadian poetry, the other damned by official faint praise, confirmed what Mr. Richler had always maintained. Tribalism is rampant in Quebec, especially at the top. Le Québec aux Québécois.
I met Mordecai for lunch on a summer day in 1988. I'd returned the year before from Washington to write a national column from Ottawa, and was appalled at what I found. The Meech Lake accord had just been endorsed by the prime minister, by 10 premiers, by all the daily newspapers in Canada and by almost all the country's elites. It was my main reason for leaving Washington to return to Canada.
I'd invited Mordecai because I was outraged -- at the abdication of principle, of policy, of vision, of enlightened self-interest that Meech Lake was poised to inject like a virus into our constitution. Pierre Trudeau called it "the fast track to sovereignty association."
But all those who had applauded Mr. Trudeau as prime minister and embraced the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms now endorsed, instead, the tribalist repressive vision that he had fought and vanquished.
Except, almost alone in Quebec, Mordecai Richler. He grasped the contradiction between liberalism and tribalism. He knew that "promoting the distinct society" meant unleashing the hounds of intolerance and repression. His childhood experience, when houses and beaches and clubs in many parts of Quebec excluded Jews, as well as his adult maturation in the United Kingdom where political liberalism is indigenous, inured him against the victimization myths of the Québécois and the treason of the intellectuals.
A whole generation had abdicated -- except for the Quebec nationalists -- and the intellectuals and writers had become appeasers, opportunists, radical chic-nicks, bleeding hearts and simpering minds.
That was the substance of our conversation. We denounced Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Robert Bourassa, the Montreal Gazette, The Globe and Mail. We deplored the blinded defenders of federalism. We despised the Liberal members of the National Assembly -- especially the craven English-speaking members -- who had proved their boundless obsequiousness by voting unanimously to censure D'Iberville Fortier, commissioner of official languages, when he defended an English-speaking community "humiliated" by Bill 101.
We agreed on everything. Except that my purpose was to suggest that he launch a petition among intellectuals and writers denouncing the repressive language law and its enshrining by Meech Lake. He refused, saying he had a novel to finish, and he thought he could do better by his own writing. And so he did, to devastating effect.
One of his last major essays, published in the 1998 collection, Belling the Cat,recalled Jacques Parizeau's "money and ethnic votes" speech after he lost the 1995 referendum: "Nobody booed or hissed. Nobody, so far as I know, walked out of the auditorium in disgust. Instead, responding to Parizeau's bile, the crowd began to roar, 'Le Québec aux Québécois.' A chant, as I wrote in The New Yorker in 1991, that is tribal and does not include anybody named Ginsberg or MacGregor."
Yes, Mr. Richler dared recall the notorious essay, "Inside -- Outside," published in the Sept. 23, 1991, issue of The New Yorker. It shot Mordecai Richler onto every Quebec newspaper, radio and television program. He became forever a cause célèbre.
Michel Bélanger, then the recently named co-chair of the Bélanger-Campeau commission on Quebec's constitutional future, commented from New York, as reported in the Montreal Gazette: "Foreigner is not the right expression [for Mr. Richler] I think the right expression is he doesn't belong." Le Québec aux Québécois.
The following March, the essay was published, expanded, as Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! The howling mob was ready. Bloc Québécois MP Gilles Duceppe summoned "the leaders in English Canada and in the Jewish community" to "join in denouncing this consummate racist with a totally decayed mind. Canadians must speak out. They either denounce his action or they are his accomplices." BQ MP Pierrette Venne called on the government to "forbid the sale of this book as a book which engages in hate propaganda."
Lise Bissonnette, then publisher of Le Devoir, ranted against The Journal'sBarbara Frum, "the beautiful Canadian elites," and the English-speaking community of Quebec. All were white Rhodesians for not denouncing Mr. Richler (though many did).
A front-page La Presse cartoon had this caption: "We, sons of whores, when we represent a Jew with curls and a black hat, we are racists and anti-Semites. When Mordecai describes us as children of sows, we come close to apologizing. Isn't that the limit?" (Even this week, some commentators repeated the falsehood that Mr. Richler had called earlier Québécois mothers "sows." In fact, he wrote that priests such as Lionel Groulx, who insisted on families of 12 to 16 children, treated such women like sows.)
The resentments were muted though not forgotten this week. On Wednesday, La Presse polled its readers on this question: "Is the death of Mordecai Richler a great loss for Quebec culture?" In reply, 812 voted yes, 1,726 voted no.
Le Devoir publisher Bernard Descoteaux wrote editorially: "He had a twisted view of our society, one where prejudices loomed large." The biggest circulation Quebec daily, Journal de Montréal, carried a single story Wednesday on Mr. Richler's passing. It was on Page 15, with the headline: "Mordecai Richler, the cursed polemicist, succumbs to cancer."
Better than anyone, Mordecai Richler, a free spirit, demystified our history over the past 25 years. His monument of words will outlast stone. firstname.lastname@example.org