As a city councillor in the mostly-Jewish Montreal municipality of Côte Saint-Luc, one of my portfolios is naming rights.
When we attach a name to a park, building, street or event, a tremendous amount of thought and consideration goes into the process.
Most recently we renamed a street after the legendary Rabbi Sidney Shoham, who passed away just over a year ago. Next on our agenda is a beautiful new park at the main intersection of Cavendish Boulevard and Kildare Road after the late human rights icon Elie Wiesel.
When the city of Montreal decided to rename a park after former separatist Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau in Outremont, I was more than a bit disturbed. For one thing, the city was removing the name of ‘Vimy Park” – dedicated to the 3,600 Canadian soldiers in World War II who died and thousands more who were wounded in the four-day battle at Vimy Ridge – and replacing it with the name of a man who not only tried to destroy Canada, but uttered some of the most distasteful and intolerant remarks ever to be spewed on national television.
Come back with me if you will to Oct. 30, 1995. The scene: Montreal’s Palais de Congrès. Supporters of independence had gathered to watch the Quebec referendum results roll in. Parizeau’s sovereignists had come within 55,000 votes of breaking up the country.
I was actively involved in that referendum campaign as the communications director for the now defunct Canadian Jewish Congress. We had formed a coalition with the Greek and Italian communities and pushed very hard on Canadian unity. Our voice was heard loud and clear and reached out to all ethnocultural communities and Parizeau noticed.
“We are beaten, it is true,” Parizeau said in his now infamous concession speech. “But by what, basically? By money and ethnic votes.”
I was in a room with leaders from the Jewish, Greek and Italian communities when Parizeau uttered those hateful remarks. He announced his plans to resign the following day and was replaced a few months later by Lucien Bouchard.
Parizeau passed away on June 1, 2015 at the age of 84. The Quebec government named the Caisse de Depot’s Montreal office building after him given the fact he was one of the founders of this entity – Quebec’s pension plan.
“Mr. Parizeau was not only an economist which is very dear to my heart, but also a minister of finance and one of the most important people behind the creation of the Caisse in the 1960s,” said Quebec Finance Minister Leitao, whose West Island Montreal riding includes a large Jewish and ethnocultural community. “Just look at what we have here today. The Caisse Depot is one of the world’s top asset managers, something we’re very proud to have in Quebec and plays a hugely important role in our economy.”
While I can accept reluctantly the naming of the building after Parizeau, I do not share Montreal’s opinion that he deserves a park in his honour, even if he did live across the street for many years.
Parizeau never properly apologized for his comments.
“I did not succeed in ensuring that a significant proportion of our fellow anglophone and allophone citizens felt solidarity in their neighbours’ combat,” Parizeau told reporters, after announcing that he would also be resigning as PQ leader.
Okay, that seemed to be a start.
“It is not healthy in a society such as ours that groups, particularly when they come from specific cultural communities, vote 95 per cent in the same direction,” he continued. “That is what I tried to underline. The words were too strong, but the reality does not change.”
Well there you go, he had a golden opportunity to recant and just stuck in his heels.
In October, 2013 Parizeau again tried to clarify his controversial comments, saying that when he laid blame for the loss, he said “ethnic votes” and not the ethnic vote, and was referring to our coalition of Greek, Italian and Jewish organizations, which were actively campaigning on the ‘no’ side.
While Parizeau did come out against the PQ’s xenophobic Charter of Values at the same time, for me it was too little, too late,
Montreal city council voted 51-2 in favour of renaming Vimy Park in honour of Parizeau. Among those voting in favour were several members of the Jewish community. Meanwhile, former Ontario Premier and Liberal MP Bob Rae stated, “Changing a park in Montreal from ‘Vimy’ to ‘Jacques Parizeau’ – and this during the 100th anniversary of World War I is an insult pure and simple.”
The city has now renamed another park Vimy. But it seems that Montreal’s very federalist Mayor Denis Coderre, facing another election a year from now, wanted to make a splash in Outremont. The late Robert Bourassa, the long-time leader of the Quebec Liberals, now has a downtown street named after him. That only occurred years after a previous Montreal administration made a mess of trying to rename another street in his honour.
Bourassa also resided in Outremont, home I might add to a very large Hasidic Jewish community. Would it not have behooved Montreal to name a park after a federalist like Bourassa instead of a man whose hateful comments to ethnocultural minorities will serve as his true legacy?
Mike Cohen is B’nai Brith Canada’s Quebec news bureau chief, a veteran writer and municipal politician. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @mikecohencsl