BORN: Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec • 13 December 1945
Feminist and nationalist, without doubt. Separatist? Increasingly so, but sightly less certain, though she supported the Parti Quebecois, the Bloc Quebecois, and the “Oui” in the 1995 Quebec refer¬ endum. As publisher ofLe Devoir, the powerful newspaper of the Quebec francophone elite, Lise Bissonnette may not always set the agenda, but what she writes and says helps determine how Quebec reacts to it.
Born in Rouyn in the hard-scrabble mining country of the Abitibi, Bissonnette was one of seven children in a lower-middle-class family that was firmly in second or third place compared with the Anglo mining executives who lived in the adjacent community of Noranda. Smart, she sailed through high school with blinding speed, spent a few years in Hull on an educational course, and then attended Universite de Montreal.
After two years in France working on a never completed doctorate, she landed a job at Universite du Quebec a Montreal helping to develop the new university’s programs.Learning of an opening for an education reporter at Le Devoir in 1974, Bissonnette applied and virtually harassed editor Claude Ryan, the so-called Pope of Saint-Sacrement Street where the newspaper had its offices, into hiring her.
She was an immediate success, her tough prose and work ethic propelling her onward in a newspaper that was not known to be friendly to women. Following stints in Quebec City and Ottawa, she joined the newspaper’s editorial board. In 1982, after only eight years in the business, she was made editor-in-chief, a position that lasted for almost four years before she was fired in what she called “a sordid affair” orchestrated by the paper’s publisher.
Redemption came in 1990 when, after she had written for the magazine Forces and done a weekly Quebec column in the Globe and Mail, Bissonnette was appointed publisher of Le Devoir. Ever devoted to the task of fostering Canadian disunity and friction between the French and English speaking, the newspaper was in money-losing difficulty, its circulation stagnant at around 30,000 copies a day, and its advertising revenues sinking.
In August 1993 Bissonnette, a personally charming individual with a steel inner core, suspended publication for two days and dealt toughly with the newspaper’s unions while she raised money from business and organized labour.Simultaneously, she again put her stamp on the editorial pages.Although Bissonette consistently resisted any effort by the Parti Quebecois to take Le Devoir for granted, she almost invariably supported its policies with the faithfulness of a true believer.
She had counselled a “Oui” vote in the 1980 referendum, although her editorial criticizing the PQ minister who had labelled female federalists as “Yvettes” played a role in galvanizing federalist support among fran¬ cophone women.
She denounced the fevered negotiations that produced a constitutional bargain without Quebec’s concurrence in 1981, she declared herself in 1990 for “the maximum sovereignty for Quebec, with an organic entente with the rest of Canada,” and she promoted the Bloc Quebecois in the 1993 federal election and the PQ in the provincial vote the next year.Despite Bissonnette’s intellectual clarity, there is a rigidity and blindness in her views of federalists, Canada, and history.
Press colleagues who were federastes were self-righteous lapdogs frightened by free speech and independent thought. “Independantistes” were those who have “simply given up on a Canada that failed to meet their parents’ aspirations,” sepa¬ ratists who have “no connection with Canada” any longer.
“It’s a question of belonging,” she said. “Canada isn’t a bad idea. But if it asks me to like it, to say ‘Canada is my country,’ no, that doesn’t correspond with reality”—or Bissonnette’s version of reality.In her vicious attacks on Mordecai Richler—who had dared to suggest the simple truth that Le Devoir had been anti-Semitic in the 1930s—Bissonnette showed nothing so much as her inability to read in context.
“Such defamation,” she wrote about Richler in 1992, “smears all those who are now associated with Le Devoir.” And when Richler appeared on CBC’s The Journal, Bissonnette wrote that “a more Rhodesian scene than that one would have been difficult to imagine,” with Barbara Frum playing the part of a “high society matron serving tea in her Salisbury villa to a poor disaffected neighbour, who complains that the servants are ingrates.
” Too often, Bissonnette’s blinkered view of the world through herfleur-de-lys spectacles allows her ire to run well ahead of her good sense.Still, Bissonnette remains one of the major players in Quebec life. She is on television frequently, she appears in magazines, and she has even written two much praised novels. If Canada is to survive intact, it will not be because Lise Bissonnette has not done her best to push the country towards break-up.