This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 22, 2005
GG-Designate's Federalist Loyalty Questioned
HE SURE looks the part. With his long, grey hair and laid-back attire, Jean-Daniel Lafond is the very image of the aging seventies-vintage Montreal separatist. And that's how enemies of the federal Liberals would like to label the husband of governor general-designate Michaëlle JEAN. Conservatives are itching to expose Lafond as a sovereigntist in a bid to discredit the wildly popular choice of his wife as the Queen's representative in Canada. Separatists admit the selection of Jean, a star TV personality in Quebec, is a coup for federalists, and so they hope to embarrass Prime Minister Paul MARTIN by suggesting that even if she is pro-Canada, she'll be bringing a closet-separatist spouse to Rideau Hall.
But Lafond, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, is proving hard to pin down politically. The bare biographical facts are straightforward: born in France in 1944, he moved to Canada in 1974, became a Canadian citizen in 1981, and married Jean in 1990. The questions swirl around what views Lafond acquired on Quebec's place in Canada during his many years as a Montreal academic, film maker and radio commentator. You'd think he'd have said something definitive on the subject. He even directed a 1994 documentary that reunited members of the FRONT DE LIBÉRATION DU QUÉBEC to hash over their terrorist heyday. Yet in the early days after Jean's surprise appointment on Aug. 4, neither the Liberals' political foes nor inquiring journalists had uncovered any smoking-gun statements.
But the absence of hard evidence didn't stop hardcore separatists from sparking a debate about the couple's convictions. Novelist René Boulanger said Jean, a Haitian immigrant who rose to fame as a Radio-Canada broadcaster, has been "soaking for ages in the sovereigntist atmosphere that characterizes her intellectual circle." Boulanger seemed affronted that, for all that marinating, she still likes Canada. He claimed Lafond was "a declared sovereigntist." But a close friend of Jean and Lafond told Maclean's that Boulanger barely knows the couple, and called his comments "outrageous."
Sorting out the political views of Montreal's media-literary-academic elite is no simple matter. An outsider might reasonably assume the one thing every member of the caste would know about every other is his or her stand on separation - is it oui or non come the next referendum? But several friends of Jean and Lafond said in interviews they know very little about their convictions on Quebec's future. Nathalie Barton, president of InformAction, the Montreal film company that produced Lafond's last few documentaries, said the subject isn't one she has discussed explicitly with him over their long working relationship. "I don't know his specific opinions about our constitutional issues, or Michaëlle's for that matter," Barton said. She said they talk more about international affairs, as Lafond's most recent films were about Haiti, Cuba and Iran.
But what about his 1994 National Film Board documentary on the FLQ? It has been described as neutral, giving members of the gang that kidnapped and murdered Pierre Laporte a chance to argue about old times. Lafond got to know them well - he talked of bonding instantly with convicted FLQ terrorist Francis Simard and hired another FLQer, Jacques Rose, to build a bookcase. "When you make a documentary, you need to get close to the characters," Barton said. "But that doesn't mean you become like them or approve of them." Fred Reed, a Montreal translator, author and longtime friend of Lafond, said the notion that Lafond sympathized with the FLQ is "totally ridiculous." Added Reed, himself an avowed sovereigntist: "As far as I know, Jean-Daniel never had a membership in the Parti Québécois."
Jean and Lafond are not expected to talk to the media until she is installed in late September. But the heat is on them, and not just in Quebec. Martin telephoned Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Ralph Klein last week to urge them to back off from concerns they had voiced about Jean. Klein had vowed to "check into" how Jean voted in the 1995 referendum, and New Brunswick's Bernard Lord, another Tory premier, also demanded to know. It's no surprise Martin went to bat to defend Jean - a Decima poll found that 79 per cent of Canadians approved of her appointment, as did a massive 89 per cent of Quebecers, including 86 per cent of those who intend to vote for the Bloc Québécois. An Ottawa appointee who scores so phenomenally well with BQ voters is a rare trophy for federalism - and an irresistible target for its adversaries.
Maclean's August 22, 2005