Controversial choice for Governor General of Canada
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Aug 24 14:28:29 UTC 2005
August 23, 2005
Too late now
Michalle Jean's appointment raised complex questions that deserved to be
Before Michalle 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
Two days later the National Post carried an interview with Hlne 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 Vallires and Charles Gagnon, founders of the terrorist Front de
Libration du Quebec. "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 Michalle 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
Quebecois, 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 Ren Boulanger, called Lafond "a pure
indpendantiste . . . he didn't hang around with two-bit politicians but
with pure revolutionaries." The reference was to Lafond's 1994 documentary
La Libert en colre (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
Whatever their merits, Lafond's films are not widely distributed. By the
time reporters finally got their hands on La Libert en colre or the
companion book Lafond published after the film was released, Le Quebecois
had dropped another bombshell: La manire negre, Lafond's film about the
Martinique author Aime Cesaire, 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 Qubcois 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 communiqu,
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
And that, it would appear, was that. By the end of the week a good deal of
steam had gone out of the Michalle Jean controversy. If the likes of Ren
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 Libert en colre 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 Vallires'
manifesto, Les Ngres blancs d'Amrique (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 Vallires 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 Vallires: "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 Vallires "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 libert en
colre. 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 Libert en colre, 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 Manire ngre
seems, at first glance, more obscure: a portrait of Aim Csaire, 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-Qubcois writers Dany Laferrire and Serge
Legagneur, Michalle Jean, and quite a brochette of lifelong sovereignist
activists, including Vallires, the poet and Parti Qubcois politician Grald
Godin, Andre Ferretti, former vice-president of the RIN, a precursor to
the PQ, and poet Paul Chamberland. (Perhaps Mordecai Richler was busy that
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. Grald 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
The others raise their own glasses for this toast, Lafond writes. If
Michalle 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
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 communiqu 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 communiqu 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 Qubcois.
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
Bouchard's colleague Monique Vezina sat at the federal cabinet table for
as long as Brian Mulroney was prime minister. In 1998, protesting against
the Chrtien government's Supreme Court reference on secession, Vezina
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 Michalle 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 Libert en colre, the
Quebecois singer Plume Latraverse sings the song that gave the film its
title. C'est l de la gloire la ranon, he sings. Les exploits passent, les
This is the ransom glory exacts. Exploits fade. All that remains is what's
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