This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 24, 2006
Playwright Michel Tremblay Renounces Separatism
In this oh-so-tolerant Distinct Society, writing about being gay helped Michel TREMBLAY become rich and famous as a novelist and playwright - and having snorted cocaine never prevented André Boisclair from becoming the leader of the Opposition. Here, priests defy the Pope's authority, smokers smoke, swingers' clubs thrive. But as Tremblay found out last week, there is one sacred cow that cannot be kicked without triggering a debate rich in anger and expletives. In Quebec, a known separatist cannot publicly express doubts about the desirability of separation - or the ability of the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS to achieve that goal. Period. But Tremblay, 63, a lifelong separatist icon, did just that last week, and he was tarred and feathered by a coterie of singers, moviemakers and other writers.
They advised him to shut up or to keep out of the province. They called him a traitor, an old fogey or - this from Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, another aging separatist writer - an "asshole." For good measure, former PQ premier Bernard LANDRY said he will boycott Tremblay's plays from now on. And Tremblay's heinous crime? He said publicly what a growing number of separatists have started to admit, privately: SEPARATISM was a seducing idea at the time, but that time may be over. "It was a beautiful dream, and one must respect such dreams, but it will never be more than a dream if we keep looking at it in economic terms first," Tremblay told a Canadian Press reporter.
The story hit the front pages of the province's newspapers on Monday, and continued to fuel a week-long furor. "I became a separatist saying, 'We are French-speakers, and we are strong enough to do it, so let's create a country,' " Tremblay said. At the time, the separatist movement was a utopian drive, fuelled by cultural nationalism - but the utopia has since been hijacked by bean-counters fixated on fiscal imbalance, he added. "The driving force was our pride in being the beacon of francophone culture in America - not the economy."
For the PQ, the bad news continued. Robert LEPAGE, another globe-trotting Quebec playwright, turned Tremblay's remarks into a double whammy, saying he too has faltering faith in separatism, and feels the need to be "convinced anew." Lepage, who was in Montreal when the Tremblay story broke, explained that he identifies as Québécois when in Canada, but views himself more as a Canadian when working in Europe or Asia.
Later in the week, Tremblay insisted he still is a "separatist," but that was beside the point. By then, the PQ had damaged itself, largely because of the strident, knee-jerk reactions Tremblay's remarks triggered among party apparatchiks. Quebecers lit up radio-station switchboards and filled op-ed pages with letters expressing outrage over such "Stalinist" and "doctrinaire intolerance," as some wrote in Montreal's La Presse. Even militant separatists such as Lise Payette, a former PQ cabinet minister, came down hard on Tremblay's critics. "Only idiots never question their commitments," she wrote in her column in Le Journal de Montréal. Raymond Bachand, a former separatist and now a provincial Liberal cabinet minister, reminded the Péquistes, tongue-in-cheek, that "sovereignty is not religious dogma," and can be discussed.
The controversy revealed a sense of panic amid the PQ, says Jean-Herman Guay, a political scientist at Université de Sherbrooke. "The sovereigntists are in a bad fix at the moment," he says. "Whatever momentum they seemed to be enjoying just a few months ago is now slipping between their fingers." Even victory in a by-election in the central Montreal riding of Ste-Marie-St-Jacques on April 10 - a PQ stronghold - left the party with a bitter aftertaste. It held on to the riding, but with 41 per cent of the vote, down from 50 per cent in the 2003 election. Jean Charest's ruling Liberals - extraordinarily unpopular after three years in power - finished second, losing less than three percentage points from the previous contest. Québec solidaire, the upstart left-wing party, drilled a hole in the side of the PQ, finishing third with 22 per cent in their first ever contest.
Another troubling statistic: a mere 32 per cent of voters bothered to cast a ballot, in this usually highly politicized neighbourhood. "The Charest government is very unpopular, but the PQ seems unable to capitalize on its weakness," says Claude Gauthier, a senior analyst with CROP, the Montreal polling firm. Support for the Parti Québécois has declined by 11 percentage points since André Boisclair became leader last November, he noted. It now stands at 40 per cent, compared to 29 per cent for the Liberals (up two points), "and the PQ's losses have been the new party's gains."
Less than a year ago, the PQ was sailing high, seemingly headed for victory in the next provincial election, which has to be held by April 2008, and hatching plans for an early referendum based on polls indicating they could win it. What happened? "We are now in the post-Gomery era," says Guay. "The bad guys of the sponsorship scandal have been punished, the Harper government shows a conciliatory attitude toward Quebec, and the PQ is back on the ground, facing the same problems as three years ago." At the time, then-party leader Landry had declared "a season of ideas": a huge brainstorming that was supposed to breathe some life and fire back into the tired old idea of separation.
That necessary initiative was quickly shoved onto the back burner when the sponsorship scandal started doping up the PQ's support in the polls. Perhaps it shouldn't have been. The Parti Québécois' revolution has, in some ways, been a remarkable success already. Economic imbalance, social inequities, cultural insecurities - whatever fuelled the PQ's rise in the sixties and seventies has been greatly offset, thanks, in good part, to the threat of separation. Finding new arguments to fire up well-fed troops for a new battle for secession is Boisclair's biggest challenge. So far, he has fallen way short - and his time is running out already. That's the raw nerve Michel Tremblay touched with his remarks - and the reason they triggered such a feverish reaction.
Now, as balmy weather finally returns after a long, hard winter, Quebec, the political hotbed of Canada, finds itself totally disgruntled with the current political leadership. An unpopular Charest is facing an increasingly impatient caucus. The federal Liberals are a spent force, the NDP is a foreign entity. And a faltering Boisclair has yet to give his troops a sense of purpose.
Quebecers do not really want to separate from Canada - but they know that they could if it came down to that. So, the only political player able to make a difference in Quebec at the moment is Stephen HARPER. And with an inept and panicked PQ as custodian of the separatist dogma, he now has some room to manoeuvre. Who could have predicted that, just six months ago?
Maclean's April 24, 2006