A controversial figure bows out

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Angry about injustice, demonstrative in his response, he took aim at oppression.

When celebrating the St-Jean Baptiste national holiday on June 24, many Quebecers will be remembering one of the pioneers of the independence movement who fell victim to lung cancer on Monday, June 16, at age 69. Pierre Bourgault never held any public office, and he was often embroiled in unseemly controversies, but it has been suggested that he be given a state funeral with the same national honours as those bestowed upon René Lévesque and Robert Bourassa. Jean Charestâe(TM)s Liberal government decided against such a move, but in an unprecedented gesture, the Notre Dame Basilica will allow a secular funeral ceremony on Saturday for the fiercely atheist gay man.

Although he was often identified as the “leftwing conscience” of the Parti Québécois, the friends and enemies of the flamboyant, self-identified vieille tapette (old fag) were sprinkled across the political spectrum. He quit the PQ executive council because of differences with fellow sovereignist René Lévesque, yet he enjoyed an amicable relationship with the Liberal Robert Bourassa.

Many on the left had difficulties with his 1995 comments that forced him to resign as communications advisor to Jacques Parizeauâe(TM)s referendum campaign: “It is the Jews, the Italians and the Greeks who cast an ethnic vote. It is they who are racist, not us. They have only one objective, to block [sovereignists]. To win a referendum we will have to do like them: an ethnic vote!” The comments were to foreshadow Parizeauâe(TM)s referendum night musings on “money and the ethnic vote”.

While people have every right to be offended by Bourgaultâe(TM)s declaration, it is also worthwhile to examine the origin of such sentiments in the life of this central character of Quebecâe(TM)s political scene. The contradictions internalized by Bourgault are still very much alive on the national landscape here.

In the mid-sixties when Pierre Bourgault and fellow La Presse journalist Jean-Pierre Bonhomme decided to do some financial business on Old Montrealâe(TM)s St-Jacques Street, the unsuspecting bank manager got a small taste of what the cityâe(TM)s wealthy anglo-capitalist minority would be in for over the coming decades.

At the time it was a relatively common experience for English-only services to be offered to customers in downtown Montreal. But Bourgault would not stand for it. “When Bourgault saw that they had no forms in French he got very angry,” says Bonhomme. “I was also angry, but I was less demonstrative.”

That was Bourgault in a nutshell — angry about injustice and demonstrative in his response to it. He was best known for his fiery rabble-rousing speeches. It is said that he made more than 3,500 of them in his lifetime.

Over the course of the 1960s, Bourgault took aim at what he considered to be the major causes of oppression in Quebec — English colonialism and the Catholic Church hierarchy. No doubt this had something to do with a youth spent studying at the conservative Catholic Collège Jean de Brébeuf in Montreal, followed by a tour of duty in the 1950s as an artillery officer in the Canadian army. “In the army, French Canadians studied in English, were commanded in English and were despised in English,” said Bourgault.

He got in on the ground floor of the fledgling Quebec independence movement in 1960 when he joined the leftwing RIN (Rassemblement pour lâe(TM)indépendance nationale). By 1964 he was its president. Although the RIN would never win any seats in Quebecâe(TM)s National Assembly, it garnered six per cent of the vote in 1966.

He quickly gained notoriety as the organiser of an anti-monarchist demonstration for the 1964 visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Quebec City. That event would subsequently be known as le samedi de la matraque (Saturday of the Nightsticks) because of the severe police clubbings suffered by demonstrators. He was also arrested for allegedly inciting a riot at the 1968 St. Jean Baptiste parade in Montreal where Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was pelted with various projectiles. Bourgault was acquitted of the charges.

Also in 1968 Bourgault presided over the disbanding of his own party, encouraging its membership to join René Lévesqueâe(TM)s newly-formed Parti Québécois. His relationship with the PQ, like his relationship with its leader, was a stormy one. He was elected to the governing executive council in 1971 but he would quit political life a mere two years later. Yet he would still be active in PQ party politics behind the scenes until his unceremonious resignation as Parizeauâe(TM)s communications advisor in 1995.

Bourgault made a career as a journalist with various mainstream and leftwing sovereignist publications. In 1976 he became a communications professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) where he would influence more than one generation of students. In recent years, many Quebecers listened to his lively commentary on everything from the war in Iraq to contemporary cinema on the Radio-Canada French program Indicative Présent. He also acted in the award-winning film Léolo, directed by his friend Jean-Claude Lauzon, and he wrote a song, Entre Deux Joints, recorded by Robert Charlebois.

Most of Bourgaultâe(TM)s political life was dedicated to struggle along the cleavage so central to Quebec of the1960s and âe(TM)70s — the division between the “two solitudes” of English and French. Those divisions are still very much alive, but arguably, they do not define the political terrain, the left and right of the political spectrum, as they once did. Bourgault seemed at times, to sense this change, but it also frustrated him, as with his “ethnic vote” comments of 1995, and it puzzled him as in 2001 when he commented on the birth of a new leftwing party, the Union des Forces Progressistes (UFP) (www.ufp.org):

“Are we witnessing the birth of a new left? To know that, we have to explain to ourselves what that means, the left, today, here. It is not always very clear.”

It is to his credit that he continued to pose such questions even if the answers were “not always very clear” to him. His entourage of students, artists and film-makers who often joined him for lively breakfast conversations on the terrace of his Montreal loft apartment speak of his enthusiasm for debate on any topic from the flowers that he loved cultivating, to politics and cinema.

“We, the younger generation, didnâe(TM)t always agree with him on everything,” says former student and present-day filmmaker Hugo Latulip. “He knew that, but he expected us to be ready to defend our views. He was a great teacher because he always had the highest expectations of everybody, including himself.”

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