Copied from the National Post

Saturday June 12, 1999

Redeem Duplessis? C'est assez!

Mordecai Richler

He was a tyrant who winked at corruption on a mind-boggling scale

"I am not a crook," said Richard Nixon, and if that's true, he was just about rara avis among politicians. LBJ was dirt poor when he entered politics in Texas, but after years of ill-paid public service, lo and behold, he was a multi-millionaire when he retired as president. First time out as a commodities investor, the inspired Hillary Clinton was lucky enough to have a $10,000 bet multiply 10 times within months.

Brian Mulroney was accused of taking a kickback on the Air Canada purchase of the Airbus, but went on to win a famous victory against the fumblebum Liberals who had no evidence to support the case. Now he is understandably chagrined because the RCMP have yet to close the books on the charge. However, given the outfit's mismanagement of their investigation of the Bre-X scam, he needn't worry. Our once-fabled police force has tumbled into such low estate I'm told Disney, which owns exclusive rights to their emblems, wants to renegotiate the contract, given their diminishing value.

Actually Mulroney, once the most despised or our prime ministers, is enjoying a revival of sorts. On the occasion of his 60th birthday, the National Post reprinted a Gazette Valentine to the former PM in which astonished readers learned that Brian, bless him, loved his wife and adored his children.


At the McGill University symposium on the Free Trade Agreement a.k.a. Mulroney's-Advertisements-for-Himself, he pointed out yet again -- justifiably, mind you -- that for all their hollering, the Liberals did not, as advertised, rewrite the FTA or scrap the GST, but luxuriated in policies Mulroney had first put in place.

So I have no quarrel with Mulroney redivivus, but the attempt to redeem the reputation of Maurice Duplessis, during this summer's so-called "Duplessis Events" in the former premier's hometown of Trois-Rivieres, is something else again.

I was brought up in a Quebec that was reactionary, church-ridden and notoriously corrupt -- a stagnant backwater -- its chef for most of that time: Premier Maurice Duplessis, leader of the long-defunct Union Nationale party. This was the shameful period known here as a la grande noirceur, "the great darkness." Writing in Le Devoir, Andre Laurendeau coined the theory of le roi negre, venturing that it was the real rulers of Quebec (the English) who had manipulated a French-Canadian (Duplessis), allowing him to govern the province, just as colonial powers designated African puppets to keep their tribes quiescent . Laurendeau's face-saving analogy was too clever by half. In Quebec, unlike the African colonies, the "tribe" had the vote.

As I argued some years back in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, if Duplessis ran the province out of his pocket for some 20 years, enriching his cronies, it was the pure laine majority that trust him into office again and again, some of them voting as many as 20 times.

Tooling through the countryside during Duplessis' watch, you could always tell which riding had voted for the Union Nationale, and which had sinned. The roads in Union Nationale ridings were paved, the others weren't. During the Union Nationale's last period or rule, liquor licences for Montreal nightclubs sold for as much as $30,000, whereas later, under the Liberal government that had misplaced it, they could be obtained for a mere $100.

In 1961, a royal commission, reviewing the Union Nationale record, estimated that kickbacks paid out by companies doing business with the provincial government over a 16-year period came to about $100-million, or more than a billion in today's bucks.

When I was a 7-year-old summering in the Laurentians, I can remember a Union Nationale flack handing out broadsheets on the street. I took one. It showed a bearded Jew, wearing a skullcap, his nose huge, slobbering over sacks of gold.

Miriam Chapin wrote in Quebec Now, published in 1955, that shortly after World War II broke out, Laurent Bare, Duplessis' minister of agriculture, informed the Assembly "that his son, on entering the army, had been subjected to the indignity of a medical examination by a Jewish doctor, and had been ill as a consequence. 'Our children were thrown into the hands of infamous Jewish examiners who regaled themselves on naked Canadian flesh.' "

Anit-semitism was not only sanctioned during the Duplessis years, but also crazed "anti-Communist" police raids, the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, and vicious strike-breaking by thuggish provincial police.

There was also the scandal of the Duplessis Orphans, illegitimate kids born into penury, who were falsely dubbed idiots and locked up in institutions, where they were abused.

Conrad Black, Duplessis' most erudite defender, allows that graft was legendary during this time, but wrote in the Canadian Encyclopedia that he "presided over a period of unprecedented prosperity, economic growth and investment in which Quebec was for the first time by almost any social or economic yardstick gaining on Ontario."

I suppose it could be argued that he built hospitals rather than close them, as does our current premier, but all the same he was a tyrant who winked at corruption on a mindboggling scale.

I sometimes wonder where the revival of the reputations of tainted, or even villainous, politicians will end.

It could, for instance, be claimed that Nero, for all his faults, was a music-lover. Hitler was a vegetarian with a novel approach to population control. And Mike Harris please note, Stalin was an early believer of getting layabouts off welfare and into work programs, offering millions of job opportunites in the Gulag.

Mordecai Richler appears weekly in the National Post.