Patrick Lagacé is a columnist for Montreal's La Presse.
Quebec Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard has announced that former Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau will be granted a state funeral and that the headquarters of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec will be named in his honour.
It's a fitting tribute for a man hailed as one of the architects of modern Quebec, who came of age as a public servant obsessed with creating wealth as the province was going through its Quiet Revolution.
Many Canadians will associate Mr. Parizeau with that fateful night when, almost 20 years ago, he came close – within 54,000 votes – of fulfilling his lifelong dream: Quebec's independence and, thus, the breakup of Canada as we know it. No doubt, Monsieur (his nickname being a tip of the hat to his aristocratic demeanour) will forever be associated with the sovereigntist movement, which he joined in 1967.
But Quebec sovereigntists and federalists today are mourning the man because, regardless of what one thinks about the idea of Quebec independence, Jacques Parizeau was widely respected by members of both groups.
Short of realizing Quebec's independence, Mr. Parizeau, who held a doctorate from the London School of Economics, always said his greatest source of pride was to have been among the handful of people who pushed Quebec into modernity through the reforms of the Quiet Revolution. "If I die tomorrow," he told his biographer, Pierre Duchesne, "I would like history to remember that I was among those 20 persons who made the Quiet Revolution happen. It is the biggest change [in] which I have participated."
And what a change. Within a few years, Quebec emerged from the Maurice Duplessis years, a period referred to as the Grande Noirceur, the Dark Ages, if you like. It's a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but Quebec was indeed lagging behind in a number of social, educational and financial benchmarks when Jean Lesage's Liberals took power in 1960. (In a Radio-Canada documentary about the Quiet Revolution a few years ago, Mr. Parizeau recalled how, at the time, Quebec's education levels were just above Portugal's.)
Mr. Parizeau's role in those crucial years was to reform the economy. He personally negotiated on Wall Street the loans that allowed the Quebec government to finance the pet project of a young Liberal minister, René Lévesque: nationalizing the province's hydro utilities to transform Hydro-Québec into a financial powerhouse, to be used as a leverage to stimulate the economy. Mr. Parizeau was among those who created the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which would become the province's investment arm that not only guaranteed Quebeckers pensions but would also be the body that Mr. Parizeau had secretly groomed, in the months preceding the 1995 referendum, to be the cornerstone of his global financial strategy if the Yes side won.
It's this man, an elder statesman if Quebec ever had one, who is being honoured today. Quebeckers knew that he was ill and frail, but his death still comes as a shock. Until the end, he spoke his mind about this place.
He spoke flawless English, as well as the language of finance; he was neither impressed nor intimidated by bankers. That was his secret weapon, in the view of a number of sovereigntists who could make an emotional and cultural case for making Quebec a country, but struggled with the numbers. Mr. Parizeau could make the case with numbers, and he could do it in English. He urged young Quebeckers to learn English; in a 2005 television interview I did with him, he said he would personally kick the butt of any young Quebecker who argued that English was not important.
Many will forever associate Mr. Parizeau with his ill-advised comments about how the Yes side lost because of "money and ethnic votes" when the ballots were counted in the 1995 referendum. The irony is that he never had any taste for identity politics, such as those crafted under the short-lived PQ premiership of Pauline Marois. The fact that he sternly disavowed the Quebec Charter of Values will forever be shadowed by his angry words on the night of his defeat, which was nothing if not personal.