Michaud will have his day in court

Jonathan Kay

National Post 14.4.01

That Yves Michaud is a passionate, tough-talking sovereigntist is undoubted. Whether he is anti-semitic, as some critics have interpreted his remarks, is not so clear. Mr. Michaud has slapped one of those critics with a libel suit and intends to use the case to clear his name.

Four months ago, the Quebec National Assembly passed judgment on Yves Michaud without a trial. So Mr. Michaud went out and arranged one.

Yves Michaud, the 71-year-old separatist cast out by the Parti Québécois leadership four months ago because of comments he made about Jews and immigrants, has not yet begun to fight. Since his political excommunication, Mr. Michaud has published a flurry of open letters denouncing his critics. He is also petitioning Quebec's National Assembly, demanding it repair the damage done to his reputation by a Dec. 14 censure resolution. And last month, he filed a lawsuit against a university professor who described Mr. Michaud's public statements as "anti-Semitic" during a televised debate.

L'affaire Michaud began on Dec. 5 with a story that Mr. Michaud related to Montreal radio listeners. "I went to my barber about a month ago," he told CKAC radio host Paul Arcand. "There was a Liberal senator there, who shall remain nameless ... He asked me: 'Are you still a separatist, Yves?' I said, 'Yes. Yes, I am a separatist just as you are Jewish.' I said, 'It took your people 2,000 years to have your own country in Israel.' I added that, as far as I was concerned, whether it took 10, 50 or 100 more years, I could wait. He then said that it was not the same. Hey, it's never the same for them. So I added that it indeed wasn't the same. The Armenians did not suffer; the Palestinians do not suffer; the Rwandans do not suffer. I said, 'It's always about you. You're the only people in the world to have suffered in the story of humankind.'"

On Dec. 13, Mr. Michaud dug his hole deeper. Speaking before the Estates General, a provincial panel studying the state of the French language in Quebec, he referred to the B'nai Brith organization as an extremist "anti-Québécois, anti-sovereigntist" group, and complained about "ethnic votes" in areas such as the largely Jewish area of Comte St. Luc, 96% of whose voters said No to the 1995 referendum.

This second outburst was too much -- even for Mr. Michaud's hardline friends in the PQ. The following day, a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the National Assembly calling on the body to denounce Mr. Michaud's comments to the Estates General as "unacceptable." The MNAs in attendance passed it unanimously, with no debate. In a flash, a political career ended.

Four months later, Mr. Michaud is unrepentant. He blames his troubles on what he calls "the coalition of the four B's": (1) former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, who passionately denounced Mr. Michaud, and then took several sharp swipes at him in his January resignation speech; (2) B'nai Brith, which responded to Mr. Michaud's comments by calling him a "dinosaur" and demanding the PQ forbid him from running in an upcoming provincial by-election; and (3 & 4) Quebec MNAs André Boulerice and Lawrence Bergman, sponsors of the Dec. 14 censure resolution.

In my interview with him, Mr. Michaud railed hard against all four B's. But it is clearly the third and fourth that have lodged deepest in his craw. What angered him about the Boulerice-Bergman resolution was that it struck him as "Parliamentary omerta." It was only the third time in the history of the Quebec National Assembly that members condemned an individual by name (even Jacques Parizeau did not receive censure for his 1995 comment about "money and the ethnic vote"). Yet the resolution was adopted without discussion, presentation of evidence or cross-examination. Mr. Michaud, who had a long career in journalism before entering politics, loves to debate. But Messrs. Boulerice and Bergman, he complains, pre-empted his defence with a summary procedure. In the days following, Mr. Michaud was so eager to have the resolution rescinded that he offered a clarification of his comments and an apology for any hurt feelings. But that offer was rejected, and Premier Bernard Landry says the Boulerice-Bergman resolution will never be withdrawn.

As a result, Mr. Michaud is trying another means to rehabilitate his reputation. On Feb. 8, McGill professor Marc Angenot characterized Mr. Michaud's remarks as "anti-Semitic" while speaking on the Radio-Canada television program Les mots-piéges. Last month, Mr. Michaud slapped him with a $15,000 defamation suit, claiming the remark caused him "moral and material damage." Mr. Michaud, a wealthy man by most accounts, presumably cares little for the money. As Prof. Angenot sees things, Michaud v. Angenot is merely a courtroom proxy for the battle Mr. Michaud was not permitted to wage against Messrs. Boulerice and Bergman four months ago.

Prof. Angenot was hardly the only commentator who described Mr. Michaud's comments as anti-Semitic. (In the National Post, Andrew Coyne referred to the controverted comments as "crude anti-Semitic cant.") But none of those who levelled the same charge could present a more perfect foil for Mr. Michaud than Prof. Angenot. The McGill professor has published widely on the subject of French anti-Semitism, and is a world-renowned expert on the Dreyfus case -- an ideal defendant for a plaintiff who has proclaimed himself to be the victim of "a Dreyfus affair in reverse."

Many English observers might be skeptical of the notion Mr. Michaud has any reputation to protect. From the rather one-sided coverage he has received in The Gazette and other English media over the last four months, one might have the impression he was regarded as a discredited crank even before he unburdened himself of his views on B'nai Brith. But Mr. Michaud's support within the PQ rank-and-file goes deep. So does his political résumé. During his career, he occupied several prestigious government posts, including that of Quebec's delegate general to France in the early '80s. Even by 2000, he was not the dinosaur B'nai Brith claimed. In the Montreal riding of Mercier, where he had considered representing the PQ in the by-election of April 9, he had the support of many PQ members -- including those on the riding's executive committee -- because of his hardline views on language.

All his years of public service, Mr. Michaud seethes, were swept aside and forgotten when the provincial legislature passed its Dec. 14 shotgun resolution. "The elected members of the PQ, my party for almost 30 years," he complained recently, "dragged me through the mire of public reprobation."

Still, Mr. Angenot is confident of his chances in court. "[Where] Yves Michaud's set of remarks are concerned," he told me, "i.e. passages of his [recent] book, Paroles d'un homme libre ... his [radio] interview ... and his testimony before the Estates General, all of them had bizarre things to say about Jews and, as far as I am concerned, all these obsessional remarks have anti-Semitic overtones."

But there is one obstacle Mr. Angenot will have to face if and when the case goes to trial: While the statements Mr. Michaud made in December were, at the very least, politically demagogic, a solid argument can be made that they were not anti-Semitic in a strict or literal sense. Hatred of Jews is among the last century's most successful ideologies. But its core characteristic, the belief that Jews are biologically programmed for greed, parasitism or some other vice, is not indicated in Mr. Michaud's comments. Nor is it indicated in the way he leads his life. He is godfather to a Jewish boy. His wife is godmother to a Jewish girl. And he has lived for 37 years in the Montreal neighbourhood of Snowdon, a multi-ethnic neighbourhood that contains more Jews than most small cities.

It is also not clear that Mr. Michaud's remarks show him to be a raving xenophobe, the portrait painted by the incriminating snippets English newspapers plucked from his Estates General statement. Though he criticized members of minority groups who do not speak French and vote against sovereignty, he also said: "The sovereignty of Quebec is unthinkable without the support, the contribution and the will of a substantial number of neo-Quebecers who will travel the road with us and who will contribute to the construction of a society of social justice and liberty." And also: "Immigrants? Yes! We want them" -- so long as they learn French, integrate culturally and support the separatist project. Mr. Michaud can make a strong case that his remarks about Jews were those of a frustrated separatist, not a bigot. His observation that almost all of Comte St. Luc's Jews voted against separatism is entirely accurate. And it is entirely possible he'd also have railed against the province's redheads, Virgos and left-handed residents if he thought they exhibited the same voting pattern.

This is perhaps why Robert Libman, the Quebec director of B'nai Brith and the mayor of Comte St. Luc, has been careful to avoid accusing Mr. Michaud of being anti-Semitic. (It is notable, for instance, that Mr. Michaud's name does not appear in B'nai Brith's 2000 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents in Canada, released in February.)

Though Mr. Michaud went over the top when he called B'nai Brith an extremist "anti-Québécois, anti-sovereigntist" organization, it is clear Mr. Michaud was not attacking B'nai Brith because it is a Jewish organization, but because it is an avowedly federalist Jewish organization. Moreover, it is an avowedly federalist Jewish organization whose Quebec director once led a small political party that categorically opposes Bill 101 and who regularly attacks the memory of Lionel Groulx, one of Quebec's most revered icons, for whom the province has named schools, streets, mountains and even a major Montreal Métro station. In his recent book, Paroles d'un Homme Libre, Mr. Michaud makes a point of distinguishing B'nai Brith from the Jewish community it serves: "[H]appily, [B'nai Brith] is not representative of the whole of our fellow citizens of the Jewish faith."

Lionel Groulx, whose views are never far from the mind of passionate Quebec separatists, helps explain Mr. Michaud's controversial radio comments as well. "Considering our small numbers and our dangerous dispersion," Groulx wrote in an unpublished 1938 essay under the heading Les Juifs de L'Amérique, which Mr. Michaud is fond of quoting, "you could not find a single other similar people living anywhere in the world except one: the Jewish people ... If the situation of the Jews and our own situation offers troubling similarities, can we boast of having, like the Jews, their fierce will to survive, their invincible spirit of solidarity, their proud and unbreakable moral armour?"

This benign quotation is not representative of Groulx's anti-Semitic attitudes, which were typical of his era. But it certainly captures the attitude a typical Quebec separatist might naturally adopt if, say, he fell into conversation with a Jewish politician he met at the barber shop: The Jews got their own country in 1948. Now some of them don't want us to have ours? Why? Do they think other minority populations don't suffer, too? Again, Mr. Michaud's Paroles d'un Homme Libre: "Quebecers have been kicked in the butt for two-and-a-half centuries. It's not too long if you compare that to the 2,000 years of wandering of the Jewish people, but it's still painful."

As for the December remark by Quebec Premier Bernard Landry, then the Deputy Premier, that Mr. Michaud had made a "monstrous historical error in treating the Holocaust as banal," Mr. Michaud should have no problem proving this is plainly false. During his radio interview, Mr. Michaud indirectly compared the Holocaust to three historical episodes of persecution. Two of these, the massacre of a million Armenians in 1915 and the 1994 slaughter of 800,000 mostly Tutsi Rwandans, were bona fide genocides that may be cited without apology in the same breath as the Jewish Holocaust. Mr. Michaud's third example, the plight of the Palestinians, is not comparable to the Holocaust. But, it is highly doubtful Mr. Michaud cited it as if it were. Invoking the Holocaust is a rhetorical strategy commonly used by Palestinian sympathizers; the intent is generally not to compare the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and that of Palestinians in Israel directly, but rather to show up what they allege to be a Jewish double standard toward group persecution.

Of course, there is no telling which way Michaud v. Angenot will be decided if the case goes to trial. My purpose here is not to defend Mr. Michaud, but merely to demonstrate that his position is at least arguable, and that reasonable people can disagree on the question of whether his comments were anti-Semitic. (And even failing that, reasonable lawyers will disagree on the question of whether Mr. Angenot's characterization constituted "fair comment" on an issue of public interest.) But the larger issue that should trouble us about l'affaire Michaud is not one that will be discussed in court: It is the question of why the man at its centre was denied the chance to fight his accusers before his sentence was handed down.