This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 18, 1996
Quebec's Lt-Gov Resigns
In the end, no one had to tell Jean-Louis ROUX that the show could not go on. One of Canada's most distinguished actors, the 73-year-old Roux had been the subject of controversy ever since his August 8 appointment as Quebec's LIEUTENANT-GOVERNOR. Quebec Premier Lucien BOUCHARD complained that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had not consulted with him over the appointment, while other Quebec sovereigntists seethed over Roux's frequent and outspoken opposition to their cause. But ultimately, the final curtain came down on Roux's brief tenure for reasons that ostensibly had nothing to do with sovereignty or federalism. Rather, the lieutenant-governor abruptly - and emotionally - resigned after creating an uproar with his acknowledgment in the newsmagazine L'actualité that, as a university student in 1942, he pencilled a swastika on his medical lab coat and took part in an anti-conscription demonstration with anti-Semitic overtones. "The thoughtlessness of youth," Roux said, could not be allowed to serve as "an excuse" for his actions, "and especially not as a justification."
The swiftness of Roux's decision to resign, which came within 72 hours of publication of the article, ended the debate over whether he should stay in office. But it gave life to larger questions, notably how accountable public figures should be for long-past actions. Another specific matter, said author and historian Irving Abella, a former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, is the need to recognize that "anti-Semitism was most overt in Quebec in the 1930s and '40s - but no less evident in the rest of the country."
Roux, of course, is far from the first Canadian public figure whose wartime actions are widely viewed as unacceptable by today's standards. Pierre TRUDEAU, for instance, once donned a 19th-century German army helmet to ride his motorcycle through rural Quebec on a visit to a group of friends, among them Roux. Quebec historian Esther Delisle's The Traitor and The Jew, published in 1992, recounts in devastating detail how anti-Semitism was part of mainstream intellectual thinking in French Quebec in the 1930s and '40s. English Canada fares no better, according to Abella, whose 1982 book, None Is too Many, recounts how the federal government plotted to keep Jews suffering from Nazi persecution out of Canada. Even within Canada, Jews often found themselves on the outside looking in: as Abella documented, most universities across Canada had quotas on the number of Jews they allowed to enrol, and Jews were barred or limited from such professions as medicine or architecture.
People close to Roux say that he had privately discussed his past actions and expressed contrition for them. And for the past 50 years, he has been a consistent champion of human rights. Once his wartime history became public last week, however, the Roux affair inevitably became entangled in the bitter politics of present-day Quebec. Although the debate broke down generally along federalist-sovereigntist lines, it also underlined the inability of the federal LIBERALS and their provincial counterparts to agree on almost anything. The federal Liberals, led by the Prime Minister, wanted Roux to stay in office. "I did not fire him," Chrétien insisted. But the provincial Liberals were prepared to side with the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS on a planned motion in the national assembly calling on Roux to resign. The Quebec Liberals, complained an adviser to Chrétien, "are your basic sheep when it comes to demonstrating any toughness."
Some observers found more than a whiff of hypocrisy in the debate. Members of the Parti Québécois and BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS cited dismay within the Jewish community as their rationale for demanding the resignation of Roux. But Jewish groups refrained from making such a demand - while the PQ and BQ toned down their rhetoric after federal Liberals pointed out that two former Parti Québécois ministers signed petitions in the 1950s calling for a convicted French war criminal to be allowed to remain in Canada. Mordecai RICHLER, who has often written about anti-Semitism among Quebec nationalists, observed acidly in an interview with Maclean's that "it is touching to see how the PQ is so concerned for my people." But Richler was unimpressed by Roux's initial defence that his 1942 actions were motivated only by a "mischievous desire to show off." By then, Richler said, "there was widespread evidence of Nazi persecution of Jews in a manner that was something far more than mischievous."
Now, in the aftermath, all sides are vying for the political upper hand. Bouchard called for the abolition of the viceregal post - a step that would require constitutional change. Spokespersons for the country's two largest Jewish groups, B'nai Brith and the CJC, said they hoped the incident would cause Canadians to examine their history and attitudes more closely. And officials in Chrétien's office said they hope to announce a successor to Roux "very soon" - although they will likely check the next appointee's credentials more carefully. Last week, Roux said he hoped his grandchildren, when they reach their 20s, "will show more wisdom than I." Still, if his departure from office contributes to a new awareness of anti-Semitism, he will arguably have contributed more to public life than most lieutenant-governors.
Maclean's November 18, 1996