It's a sign of the times that Quebec separatism's former enfant terrible, Pierre Bourgault, died quietly Monday at the age of 69, his death followed by a chorus of eulogies and adulation.
René Lévesque, when he was founding the Parti Québécois, feared like the very devil the firebrand president of the radical Rassemblement pour l'Indépendance Nationale (RIN).
He associated Mr. Bourgault with rabble-rousing harangues, street-fighting and extreme positions likely to put off the common people of Quebec, such as total independence from Canada and the closing down of all English-language public schools.
Mr. Bourgault was the very public face and voice and fist of the RIN. He called a demonstration against Queen Elizabeth's visit to Quebec City in 1964. It ended in a riot.
He led a demonstration against Pierre Trudeau's presence on the reviewing stand for the St-Jean-Baptiste parade of June 24, 1968, the evening before the new Liberal leader's first elections.
The rock-throwing riot that ensued showed the Prime Minister from coast to coast shrugging off the Mounties and holding his seat while others fled the stand. Mr. Bourgault helped elect Mr. Lévesque's most dangerous opponent.
So Mr. Lévesque refused to have the RIN merge with the PQ and he did everything he could to prevent Mr. Bourgault's election to the PQ's governing council. And he vetoed the word "independence" from being featured in his party's title or among its policies.
He explained in his memoirs: " Indépendance had so walked the streets with the RIN, picking up from demonstration to demonstration an absolute and hardened character, as if it were an end in itself, that the word had become, alas, nothing but an invitation to a blow from a truncheon." Times change, even though Mr. Bourgault scarcely did, even as he grew older.
He opposed tempering the PQ's early policy of declaring Quebec's sovereignty upon forming the government. He was opposed to the promise of a referendum and an "association" with Canada as a condition for secession. He called for Mr. Lévesque's resignation as PQ leader when the premier, after losing the 1980 referendum, proposed to run for re-election on a platform of "good government" rather than secession.
Mr. Bourgault remained always attached to his fundamental vision: Quebec was a colony of Canada. Canada was the oppressor. You didn't "associate" with the enemy, you declared your independence.
"There is an enemy within," he told college students in one speech. "It is the English-speaking minority of Montreal." I felt that I knew where Pierre Bourgault was coming from. We were both resident students at the same time, before the Quiet Revolution, at the same institution, Montreal's Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, run by priests. Though I was ahead of him, we both experienced the compulsory daily mass, the recurrent prayer sessions throughout the day, the strict, all-pervasive discipline, the constant threat of sin and heresy.
We both experienced, too, the teaching of history as paradise lost with the fall of new France, the constant struggle against the English serpent, and the latent hope of a paradise regained. We all had to memorize the "Voice of the Land of Quebec," from the novel Maria Chapdelaine, in which the voice makes a solemn statement: "All around us the foreigners came, whom we choose to call the barbarians.
"They have taken all power; they have acquired almost all the money. But in the Land of Quebec, nothing has changed. Nothing must change . . ." Pierre Bourgault revolted against the Jansenistic culture which condemned him, a homosexual, to torment while stifling his intellectual freedom by placing most stimulating authors on the Index of Prohibited Books. He became an atheist and a rebel who could never brook any restrictions on his freedom of thought or speech or deed.
But in another sense, he was true to the ethos of Collège Brébeuf. We were indoctrinated with a sense of "vocation" to defend the interests of French Canada, which included a fusion of conservative Catholicism with humiliated and resentful nationalism. The heroes of history were those who fought for French Canada and the French language, on the battlefield against the English, or in the Legislative Assembly -- or in everyday life.
Pierre Bourgault rejected the Catholicism, but he retained the sense of a vocation, retained the religious commitment to a vision of the Land of Quebec. He expressed his view in the words he supplied to a popular song, put to music and sung by singing star Robert Charlebois, Entre deux joints ( Between two joints of marijuana): "Don't crouch down like a dog, And don't let yourself feel guilty, I'm telling you that you can do it.
"This country belongs to you."
William Johnson is a Quebec-based writer and former head of Alliance Quebec.