GG Jean's Appointment Raises Complex Questions

GG Jean's Appointment Raises Complex Questions

BEFORE MICHAËLLE JEAN became the most controversial choice for GOVERNOR GENERAL in living memory - before it became necessary for Paul MARTIN's helpers to insist on the care that had gone into her selection - the first story the Prime Minister's Office told about her selection was one of instant infatuation.

On Aug. 4 Martin introduced Jean, a vivacious and extraordinarily poised Radio-Canada broadcaster who was born in Haiti, at a news conference in Ottawa. Jean's husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, a documentary filmmaker, attended the little ceremony with their adopted daughter, Marie-Eden.

Two days later the National Post carried an interview with Hélène Scherrer, Martin's principal secretary. She said Martin wasted no time deciding the vice-regal post should go to Jean. "I said, 'Sir, I know who the next G-G is going to be,' " Scherrer said. "And I just pronounced the name and he jumped on it right away. He said, 'Yes, go and see her.'" That was on a Friday in June. On Monday Martin inquired about Jean. "I didn't think you were that serious on Friday and that it was a rush," Scherrer told the National Post. "And he said, 'Yes, I want you to see her.' "

There would be weeks of preparatory labour between those June meetings and the Aug. 4 announcement that Martin was designating Jean as the Queen's representative in Canada. But when everything started to spiral sideways a few days after Martin introduced Jean to the Canadian people, it was hard to find evidence that the intervening time had taught the PMO any more about their choice than Martin knew when he seized on the idea of making her governor general.

The first hint of trouble came from Odile Tremblay, a film critic at Le Devoir. In an opinion piece the day after Jean's appointment was announced, Tremblay warmly welcomed the choice. Jean was just what the doctor ordered to "bring an aura of integrity to a government that's run out of breath," she wrote. But Tremblay also wondered how Jean and her husband Lafond, "creatures of conviction and of their word, so attached to Quebec's interests, can navigate the minefield where the Crown resides."

Lafond's films have been about the great novelists of the Quebec independence movement, like Pierre Perrault and Jacques Ferron, or about Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon, founders of the terrorist Front de Libération du Québec. "Hard to imagine [Lafond] as a prince consort holding his tongue," Tremblay wrote. "He likes to talk so much, and he does it so well." As for Michaëlle Jean, "Her independence of spirit is great. Perhaps too great for the role that awaits her."

Tremblay's analysis went largely unnoticed. The same can hardly be said for the next volley, which was fired on Aug. 8 from an obscure source. Le Québécois, a hard-core separatist pamphlet published five times a year, is not normally at the centre of Quebec's political debates. So when its editors took exception to Jean's appointment, they made a special effort to reach a broader audience, posting their attack on the Internet and emailing it to several journalists at larger print and broadcast outlets.

The article, written by novelist René Boulanger, called Lafond "a pure indépendantiste ... he didn't hang around with two-bit politicians but with pure revolutionaries." The reference was to Lafond's 1994 documentary La Liberté en colère (Liberty Enraged), which featured a reunion of former FLQ members. Boulanger went further still: Lafond's bookcase had been built by Jacques Rose, the convicted FLQ terrorist, complete with a false bottom to hide weapons.

Why reveal all this? Boulanger was frank: he wanted to provoke a backlash against Jean in English Canada that would give new fuel to Quebec's separatist movement. "The hatred of our liberty that will be revealed" by an uproar against Jean's nomination "may suffice, as much as any Meech Lake, to bond us in the same destiny - the Quebecers of the secular resistance."

Whatever their merits, Lafond's films are not widely distributed. By the time reporters finally got their hands on La Liberté en colère or the companion book Lafond published after the film was released, Le Québécois had dropped another bombshell: La manière nègre, Lafond's film about the Martinique author Aimé Césaire, contained scenes shot at a Montreal bar in which Jean joined a series of toasts with prominent Quebec separatists.

Faced with more trouble than it could possibly have expected, the PMO produced an ever-changing narrative. "What is taking place here is nothing more complicated than a smear campaign by hardline separatists who see Mme. Jean's appointment as a threat," Scott Reid, Martin's communications director, told the Canadian Press soon after Le Québécois fired its first volley. In subsequent sorties, Reid argued that, far from benefiting from Martin's quick affection, Jean had been the object of close scrutiny. "There is a rigorous process," he told the Globe and Mail, "and when the Prime Minister says that he is satisfied and that we can all be satisfied that Madame Jean and Mr. Lafond are committed Canadians, we have good reasons to believe the Prime Minister."

But how rigorous was the process? To CanWest News, Reid said: "We have no intention about asking the future governor general, or her husband, about their former acquaintances or who they might have had dinner with 15 or 20 years ago." Indeed, right up until Jean pledged her allegiance to Canada, the PMO was arguing in the strongest terms against such a pledge. "We are not going to disgrace either of these people or their office by asking them to turn out their underwear drawer and justify their allegiance to Queen and country," Reid told the Globe. In fact, one anonymous PMO source told a reporter the reason Jean would not be asked to clarify her national loyalty was because "we do not live in Stalinist Russia."

But by the time another week of hell had gone by, tactics that had seemed humiliating suddenly looked pretty good. In a three-paragraph communiqué, Jean wrote that she and Lafond were "proud to be Canadians and that we have the greatest respect for the institutions of our country. We are fully committed to Canada. I would not have accepted this position otherwise."

And that, it would appear, was that. By the end of the week a good deal of steam had gone out of the Michaëlle Jean controversy. If the likes of René Boulanger wanted her run out of Ottawa, then a lot of Canadians were disinclined to co-operate. It seemed hard to imagine anyone taking a job as the Queen's representative unless she believed in the whole Canadian idea. Many people aren't interested in pinning her husband's work, however provocative, on Jean. And however brief her statement, however coerced by events, its meaning seemed clear enough. Proud to be Canadian. Fully committed to Canada.

All that was left was amazement that this controversy, based after all on publicly available documents, could have rocked a government that had a lot of time to prepare and badly needs a political victory. In two weeks of frantic improvisation, Martin's office argued many times that Lafond's work was taken out of context. Yet Martin's staff never screened Lafond's films to offer greater understanding, nor quoted any part of Lafond's films that would have produced a more balanced portrait.

Perhaps that's because there's nothing more balanced to quote.

La Liberté en colère is a long meditation on the history of the FLQ in which some of its founding members debate their methods, arguing at length about the wisdom of armed insurrection as a tool for achieving independence. Here and there, Lafond expresses doubt about whether Quebec will become a country at all. But at no point does he express any doubt about whether it should. In the movie's companion book, Lafond writes that Pierre Vallières' manifesto, Les Nègres blancs d'Amérique (White Niggers of America) "contributed to my discovery of the profound realities and aspirations of Quebec" as an immigrant from France.

He writes that Francis Simard, who co-wrote the script and who, more than 20 years earlier, belonged to the FLQ cell that murdered Pierre Laporte, was a fast friend. "Our complicity was immediate, as though we had long shared the secret reason for his exile, the profound scar history had left in him and the great silence enshrouding the moment of internal collision between the political and the intimate that led him, one day, to decide that a man must die."

He writes that he wanted to get Vallières and Charles Gagnon, estranged founders of the FLQ, back together because he "imagined that they had not dropped their arms and joined the ranks of the resigned." This turns out to be a constant theme in Lafond's work: the refusal to abandon revolutionary spirit through "compromise" and "resignation." He quotes with approval these lines from Vallières: "When I agree to compromises I will have slain our ideal in my spirit and my heart. For my friends, I will be good only for the cemetery."

The film's closing credits label the documentary's various "players" as though they were actors in a Victorian stage drama. In Lafond's film, he labels Vallières "insoumis," one who has not surrendered. Francis Simard is "pas plus soumis," equally unwilling to surrender.

In one fascinating section of the book, Lafond essentially offers his readers a lesson in getting money from a federal agency for a film about separatists. He publishes the proposal, or "scenario," for La liberté en colère. Of necessity, he says, it contains "all the smoke signals which serve as a dialogue" with National Film Board decision-makers. As such, "it has more to do with compromise than with provocation," he says.

"Of course, nobody is fooled," Lafond continues. "Everybody knows the scenario will be blown up in the course of making the film."

It makes sense that La Liberté en colère, as a film explicitly about revolutionary politics in Quebec, would draw most of the initial scrutiny from people trying to figure out what makes Lafond tick. La Manière nègre seems, at first glance, more obscure: a portrait of Aimé Césaire, a writer and anti-colonialist revolutionary from Martinique. So in a sense it's all the more striking that it made sense to Lafond, as he filmed this portrait, to bring his subject to Montreal in 1991 to film a few rounds of drinks at the much-loved St. Denis Street watering hole, Quai des Brumes.

Around the table: Haitian-Québécois writers Dany Laferrière and Serge Legagneur, Michaëlle Jean, and quite a brochette of lifelong sovereignist activists, including Vallières, the poet and Parti Québécois politician Gérald Godin, Andrée Ferretti, former vice-president of the RIN, a precursor to the PQ, and poet Paul Chamberland. (Perhaps Mordecai Richler was busy that day.)

One element of PMO spin during last week's uproar was that when we see the group toasting "to independence! To independences!" the reference is to Martinique's independence, not Quebec's. But in the companion book to his film, Lafond says precisely the contrary. "Then the question of independences arises," he writes. "That of Quebec of course, of Martinique, and the lesson we can take from Haiti's."

The conversation leads to a moment that was not discussed during any of last week's controversy. Gérald Godin has the floor. "What characterizes a Quebec politician is persistance. One must be patient and patience will yield results because sooner or later, time will have gone by. The result is that Quebecers are much more ready for action today than they were during the 20 years leading up to the 1980 referendum. Which is why, the situation having changed, I raise my glass to the imminent sovereignty of my country."

The others raise their own glasses for this toast, Lafond writes. If Michaëlle Jean excused herself from the table, or gently chided her colleagues that if anyone can tell the difference between colonial Martinique and Canada, it's her, her husband neglected to take note.

In some circles last week it was fashionable to write off the Lafond films, and Jean's cameo at Quai des Brumes, as an expression of the ideological flexibility that is as funadmental a part of life in Montreal as a jaunty disregard for traffic signals. Everyone in Montreal finds himself at a table full of sovereignists now and then, according to this analysis. Anyone might, finding himself at a polling station after a morning stroll, take it into his head to vote "Oui" instead of "Non." What of it?

In a way this analysis shows a lack of respect for Lafond's work as a filmmaker. Making an NFB documentary takes a lot of time. Preparing the companion book, months or years later, takes a lot of time. Making two films and two books with overlapping casts and themes suggests a consistency of applied analysis that nobody, admirer or critic, should simply dismiss. The likelihood is that Lafond meant what he said, again and again in several venues over several years.

Which makes the bulk of Jean's none-too-bulky communiqué hard to square with the available evidence. "We have never belonged ... to the separatist movement"? One wonders what she makes of her husband's films. One wishes one were permitted to ask.

There remains one line from Jean's communiqué which, in its simplicity, is harder to doubt. "I would not have accepted this position," she writes, if she were not committed to Canada. It makes sense. Why spend five years sitting in Ottawa, surrounded by Mounties, reading federal government Throne Speeches and meeting on occasion with the Queen of England, if you have always believed the whole thing is a farce?

This argument is rather comforting. It would be entirely comforting if there were not a few discouraging precedents. For more than a decade now, dozens of committed sovereignists at a time have sat in Ottawa, collecting Maple Leaf paycheques and contributing to federal pensions while they debate federal legislation. They're called the Bloc Québécois.

The Bloc's founder served as Brian Mulroney's secretary of state. Lucien Bouchard was the minister in charge of the Canadian Citizenship Act, official language policy and the Canada Day ceremonies on Parliament Hill. When reporters asked about his earlier sovereignist leanings, Bouchard replied: "I am a Canadian. Who can doubt it? I am very proud to be a Canadian."

Bouchard's colleague Monique Vézina sat at the federal cabinet table for as long as Brian Mulroney was prime minister. In 1998, protesting against the Chrétien government's Supreme Court reference on secession, Vézina announced that she had "never been a federalist." Surely it would be good news if we could avoid this sort of surprise in the future.

It is true that nationalism in Quebec is a matter of degree and that most adult francophones have feelings about their province - or their nation, if you prefer - that are hard for anglophones in other provinces to understand. It is normal that national allegiances in such an environment be subject to change. But it's actually not true that most Quebecers have made a series of admiring films about the most radical and sometimes violent members of the separatist movement. It is possible to argue that this past is irrelevant to Michaëlle Jean's future. But these are complex questions and they - we - deserve a complex discussion.

As the credits roll at the end of Lafond's film La Liberté en colère, the Québécois singer Plume Latraverse sings the song that gave the film its title. C'est là de la gloire la rançon, he sings. Les exploits passent, les écrits restent.

This is the ransom glory exacts. Exploits fade. All that remains is what's written.

Maclean's August 29, 2005