I was sorry to see that Bernard Landry had died. I last saw him and Mme Landry just a few months ago at the Quebecor tribute to my friend Patsy Gallant. (They're somewhere in the picture down page.) M Landry was visibly unwell, but seemed to enjoy himself and was on good form.
I should explain, for non-Canadian readers, that he was the former Premier of Quebec - a rank he found insufficient. He wanted to be Monsieur le Président de la République du Québec. But, as that bauble slipped further and further beyond his reach, he considered at one point of making the simpler move of merely changing his job title from "Premier" to "President". He wouldn't actually be a president, in the sense of the President of France or the President of Gabon; he would still be no more or less than the Queen's first minister. But, as long as he got to be addressed as "M le Président", that would do.
If wanting to be called M le Président when you're traveling on a passport issued in the name of Sa Majesté la Reine makes Bernard Landry sound faintly preposterous, well, he could be, undoubtedly. He once chaired a Quebec cabinet meeting at which they discussed how they would divide up all that federal property in the province after they'd declared independence: The Premier, for example, would get la Citadelle, the splendid regal and viceregal residence in Quebec City just beyond the Plains of Abraham that many Mark Steyn Club members visited on our recent sell-out Steyn cruise. Bernard wasn't wrong: It would make a terrific presidential palace. But serious independence movements don't sit around all day arguing about who gets what furniture once they've strung up the ancien régime from the lamp post. If you strike at the king, you must kill the king; you don't say, well, we'll strike at the king as soon as we've finished bickering about who gets the royal suite.
That's why, in the half-century since Quebec's "Quiet Revolution", every backwater and its uncle has become independent except Quebec. Kosovo is a republic with a real president, and so's Macedonia, although due to pressure from the Greeks it's having to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, and likewise every other bit of Yugoslavia: Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia ...oh, wait, isn't it Bosnia-Herzegovina? Or has Herzegovina split, too? Who knows? But it's a better bet than the Republic of Quebec. Slovenia's independent, and Slovakia. Slavonia wasn't, or not the last time I checked. But East Timor is, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and every other Nickelandimistan between here and Mongolia.
Except for a certain "distinct society" at the eastern terminus of the 401. It turned out Quebec truly is a distinct society: it has the most inept secession movement of any jurisdiction on the planet. So now everywhere's independent except la belle province. "A British subject I was born and a British subject I will die." Was it Sir John A Macdonald who said that? Or Jacques Parizeau? No matter. They can chisel it on all their tombstones. And stick it on the licence plate, given that most Quebeckers can no longer remember what it is they're supposed to be Je me souviens-ing.
Up to the Eighties, the Cold War provided useful cover for Quebec's bluff: the map was, for the most part, frozen. But, in the wake of the Soviet disintegration, any folks who thought they were a nation could pretty much be one. And evidently Quebeckers don't - or not in any meaningful way. They've got all the characteristics of a nation: Compared to their nominal compatriots, they speak a different language, come from a different ethnic stock, and have a different (albeit all but entirely lapsed) religion. By contrast, Montenegrins are indistinguishable from Serbs in lingo, race, religion and culture. And yet 600,000 fellows up in the hills now have their own nation, and seven million Quebecers don't.
Many years ago a delegation from the Parti Québécois flew to Washington to see Grover Norquist, who was then representing various revolutionary groups from around the world in DC. He demanded to know whether the Péquistes believed in political violence, and they hastened to explain, oh, no, not at all, we're fully committed to peacefully achieved Sovereignty-Association-Pseudo-Separatist-Faux-Independent-Economically-Dependent-Ersatz-Nationhood, or whatever the preferred euphemism was back then. Norquist stood up and said, yeah, well, call me when you get serious.
It's not clear they ever did. The Parti Québécois dwindled down into a Costume Parti Québécois: as long as they could dress up and play independent, they didn't actually need to be independent. Bernard Landry, with his plans for remodeling la Citadelle, was in that sense the perfect embodiment of Quebec "separatism", wandering around like an operetta grand duke whose priority in government is dandier uniforms for his hussars.
He had no use for Canada, and sneered at a federal-grant program to provide flags to fly at Quebec post offices: "Le Québec ne ferait pas le trottoir pour un bout de chiffon rouge" - Quebec does not trawl the sidewalk (ie, prostitute itself) for a piece of red rag. Maybe. But it wasn't a bad analogy. Quebec separatism dwindled down to extorting more federal "booty" (in Parizeau's phrase) - and Ottawa came to learn that, as with the lazier streetwalkers, no matter how many sous you give them, they never do anything you want to.
And yet, for all that, Bernard Landry was, in person, very agreeable. He wanted Quebec to be a unilingual francophone state, but he spoke English fluently - and several other languages, too. Certainly he was patient enough with my French, and, if I got out of my depth vocabulary-wise, would politely suggest the word I was trying to say. He knew his Latin, and was wont to slip it into the convo just to keep you on your toes, to the point where one felt that, if he were ever to agree to a bilingual Quebec, the second language wasn't going to be English. I'm partial to politicians who are classicists, and they're too thin on the ground these days.
On the other hand, particularly with persons far below his would-be presidential status, he could be petty and mean. On the night that his party lost, narrowly, the 1995 referendum on ersatz-secession, his boss, Jacques Parizeau, blamed the defeat on "money and the ethnic vote", while M Landry rebuked a night clerk at the InterContinental Hotel in Montreal, a lady called Anita Martinez: "It was because of you immigrants that the 'No' side won," he told her. "Why is it that we open the doors to this country so you can vote 'No' " to Quebec sovereignty?"
This is obviously very rude to Mme Martinez. But, as the years roll by, I've rather come to appreciate the candor of Landry and Parizeau's more intemperate remarks. I wrote a whole book on how demography is destiny, and that's as true for Quebec independence as it is for, say, Republican prospects in Arizona, Texas and wherever's next. And, if you accept for the purposes of argument Bernard Landry's premise that Quebec is a nation, his view of immigration is less insane than, say, Justin Trudeau's or Nancy Pelosi's or Jeb Bush's or Angela Merkel's or almost any other prominent western politician's, all of whom regard it as a sign of moral virtue that admitting large numbers of immigrants who change your country into something other is necessarily a good thing, as opposed to a wild crap shoot on your future.
He seemed rather more genial in retirement, and after widowhood found happiness again with Chantal Renaud, the sometime yé-yé singer whose fine song "Plattsburgh Drive-In Blues" would not seem the most obvious contender for the Bernard Landry Dansette. They made an engaging film about him, À Hauteur d'homme, made during the 2003 Quebec election that Landry had convinced himself would be the prelude to independence. Instead, you watch a man see his dreams and ambitions crumble, yet find a kind of peace and acceptance. He more or less outlived the movement: in last month's election the Parti Québécois fell to its lowest share of the vote in half-a-century and lost its official status in the National Assembly. The province's new premier is an ex-separatist turned populist, and, if not yet a full-blown Salvini or Orbán, is at least taking a step or two in that direction. As Brutus tells us:
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Quebec's separatists let the tide drain out, and all the voyage of the movement became irredeemably bound in shallows. But in later years at least Bernard Landry was not bound in miseries. Rest in peace.
~Programming note: Today, Thursday, Mark will be on the air south of the border with the great Tucker Carlson coast to coast at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific. We hope you'll tune in.
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