The decision to rename a Montreal park from "Vimy" to "Jacques Parizeau" has sparked outrage in certain circles. In fact, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae called the decision "an insult pure and simple." I doubt that former Quebec Premier Bernard Landry has any opinions on what the people of Toronto should name their parks but Bob Rae feels it is his place to tell us who we should honor. It's easy to answer Bob but there are many Montrealers who share his opinion so let's consider the two options and their meaning for Quebec.
The First World War was a pissing contest between empires which turned into a slaughterhouse. The initial influx of enthusiastic volunteers quickly dried up and thoughts turned to conscription. Obviously, Quebecers had no interest in volunteering to get themselves blown up for an empire that clearly held them in contempt. The infamous regulation 17 severely restricting French instruction in Ontario’s schools had been passed in 1912 and was therefore still fresh in people’s minds.
Henri Bourassa, founder and then director of Le Devoir, actively campaigned against conscription. Naturally, the reticence on the part of Quebecers to go to France in order to inhale mustard gas for King George V aroused the hostility of English Canadians. English newspapers were filled with Quebec bashing (a national sport, then and now). Some Orangemen MPs in the House of Commons called for the arrest of Bourassa and the suppression of his newspaper.
Despite overwhelming opposition in Quebec the Military Service Act was passed on July 24th 1917. This bill called to arms all able-bodied men, single or widowed, between the ages of 20 to 35 years. Naturally, many men didn't want to go. If you didn't think you were fit for military service, you could make your case before a special tribunal in the hopes of obtaining an exemption. The judges on the tribunals, however, had a very restrictive view of what constituted unfitness. The population of Quebec was shocked by several cases of virtual invalids being sent to the front.
The Military Service Act was enforce in Quebec by the hiring ‘spotters’, men of dubious reputations and questionable methods. These spotters weren't policemen, but rather former boxers or wrestlers, and sometimes figures from the criminal underground who were paid a bonus for catching "deserters." So even if you did have an exemption, it could be ripped up in front of you and you could then be accused of desertion. Men whose exemption requests were still before the tribunal, were often picked up off the streets and weeks later their parents would find out that their son was sent to Europe.
These tactics lead to some violent confrontations in Quebec, the most famous of which was an uprising in Quebec City in 1918. The federal government responded by invoking the War Measures Act and sending in troops from Ontario and the western provinces. These troops opened fire on the crowd killing five men and injuring dozens. This is what that First World War means to Quebecers.
|God save the King|
The battle of Vimy Ridge was just one of the many bloodbaths of that war. The only thing notable about it was the proportion of Canadian vs British troops involved. The Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge fought for the British Empire. They weren't fighting for our "freedoms" (certainly not for Quebec's freedom). English Canadians see this battle as a defining moment for Canada where the common identity of Canadians was somehow forged on the battlefield. The fact that Quebecers have a very different view of that war, and therefore that battle, is irrelevant to them. In fact, it fills many Canadians with contempt.
Jacques Parizeau was a major player during Quebec's Quiet Revolution. He was recruited as an economic adviser to Premier Lesage and became part of a group of bright, young civil servants who transformed Quebec, overhauling departments and creating new agencies to modernize the province. He is most associated with the establishment of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, a pension fund manager with a mission to help support Quebec companies.
But Parizeau also played a role in the nationalization of electricity in Quebec. He helped crunch numbers for then minister of natural resources, René Lévesque. Parizeau was part of the team sent to New York to borrow $300 million to finance the project. Parizeau also helped create Quebec’s own venture-capital fund, the Société générale de financement and was instrumental in setting up the Quebec Pension Plan.
The creation of institutions like la Société générale de financement and la Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec helped make capital available to francophone entrepreneurs. The goal was to promote the formation of a Québécois business class as a means of reducing the province’s economic dependence on foreign or English Canadian capital. Private companies like Cascades, Bombardier, Lavalin, Provigo, Quebecor, etc benefited from these policies. In 1960 francophones only controlled 47% of Quebec's economy, by 2000 they controlled 67%. That's a substantial achievement by any standard and Jacques Parizeau had a hand in bringing it about.
Even if he had never entered politics, Jacques Parizeau would still be remembered for the role he played during this important time in Quebec's history. But he did enter politics and he was a true Quebec patriot. His dream was to take Quebec out of the shadow of British North America (i.e. Canada) and have it take its place among the nations of the world. It is a noble dream but it is for this dream that he is so despised by English Canadians.
When Lord Durham was sent to Canada following the rebellions of 1837-38 he said that he found "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state." This appears to be still true today. The name of this park is just the latest battle in this never ending war. A bloodbath for the British Empire is a significant nation-building event for English Canadians but is pretty meaningless to Quebecers, and a man who contributed so much to the advancement of the Quebec nation is held in contempt by English Canadians.
This would be fine if we were two separate countries but we aren't. We are part of the same country, and it is a country that defines itself as a single nation-state. It is a country that refuses to recognize Quebec as a distinct nation. And so, as long as Quebec remains a province of this country, its national identity, its history, and its language will always be contested. Canadian nationalism is not content to exist only in English Canada. It must always be on display in Quebec as well, and it must always compete with any distinctly Québécois nationalism.
He fought to liberate his nation
They fought for the British Empire
This aggressive Canadian nationalism stems from Canada's colonial roots. Canada is essentially a relic of the British Empire and in many ways its imperialist attitudes towards Quebec persist to this day. A relationship of equals has never existed between our two nations. It's always been one of domination. This park incident is just another manifestation of this domineering attitude. English Canada will tell us who we should be honoring and who we shouldn't.