Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Robert Lemieux (1941-2008)

The Quebec media report today the sad news that Robert Lemieux, an outstanding supporter of Quebec independence and leading attorney for political prisoners in the Sixties and early Seventies, died suddenly in his sleep Sunday night. He was 66.

Robert, whom some of us on these lists got to know during the War Measures crisis of 1970, defended many of the leading victims of the Trudeau-Bourassa repression, and was himself a defendant in a showcase trial with Michel Chartrand, Pierre Vallières, Charles Gagnon, and Jacques Larue-Langlois, accused of FLQ membership and seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government. Gagnon and Larue-Langlois were acquitted, and at a second trial the charges against the other three, including Lemieux, who acted as defence counsel, were withdrawn.

I well remember the occasion in 1971 when Lemieux and Michel Chartrand spoke with eloquence and passion — in Her Majesty’s language — to a mass audience that packed Convocation Hall in Toronto. It was probably the largest rally in solidarity with the Québécois ever held in English Canada.

As the article below from today’s Le Devoir indicates, some time after defending many of the War Measures defendants, Lemieux, who was being harassed by the Quebec Bar, withdrew from practice, moved to the remote community of Sept-Îles on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, and worked for a while as a gas station attendant. He lator became a workers’ advocate and negotiator in labour and family law, and on occasion returned to Montréal to defend persons being prosecuted for their activities in support of independence and other progressive causes.

– RF

Robert Lemieux (1941-2008) - L'avocat du FLQ s'éteint

Brian Myles
Édition du mardi 22 janvier 2008

[Le Devoir]

L’avocat et militant indépendantiste Robert Lemieux, un ardent défenseur des membres du Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), s’est éteint durant son sommeil à son domicile de Sept-Îles, dans la nuit de dimanche à hier.

M. Lemieux, 66 ans, a été retrouvé hier matin par sa conjointe, Johanne, inerte sur un sofa. Il s’était rendu récemment à l’hôpital en se plaignant de maux de tête et de problèmes de vision. Selon les premières constations des policiers de la Sûreté du Québec (SQ), appelés sur les lieux en matinée, il s’agit d’une mort naturelle. Un décès qui prive le Québec d’un deuxième pilier des droits civiques, deux mois après le décès de l’ex-juge en chef de la Cour suprême, Antonio Lamer.

«C’est une curieuse coïncidence qu’il soit décédé le jour de l’anniversaire de naissance de Martin Luther King. C’était lui aussi un défenseur des libertés publiques au premier degré», fait remarquer l’ex-felquiste Paul Rose. Toute sa vie, Me Lemieux a gardé des contacts avec ses anciens clients du FLQ qu’il a entraînés dans de véritables procès politiques dans les années 70. «Il a fait ces procès en respectant les convictions des gens, et non pas en leur faisant nier leurs gestes, explique Paul Rose. Il avait beaucoup de respect pour l’engagement politique, social et culturel des accusés qu’il défendait.»

Dans la tourmente d’octobre 70

Reçu au Barreau en 1966, Robert Félix Lemieux était promu à une brillante et lucrative carrière d’avocat au terme de ses études parmi les «Anglais» à l’université McGill. Parfaitement bilingue, il décroche un poste au sein du cabinet O’Brien, Home, Hall, Nolan, Saunders, O’Brien et Smythe. En 1966, les Vallières et Gagnon d’un certain Québec en ébullition sociale et politique le détournent irrémédiablement de la pratique conventionnelle du droit. Le Comité d’aide au groupe Vallières-Gagnon, fondé par Jacques Larue-Langlois, cherche de l’aide. Pierre Vallières et Charles Gagnon, les deux principaux idéologues du FLQ, ont été arrêtés à New York lors d’une manifestation devant le siège social de l’ONU. Rapatriés au Canada, ils sont accusés de meurtre en raison de leurs écrits révolutionnaires (c’était avant l’adoption des chartes des droits).

Âgé de 25 ans, Robert Lemieux est «déprimé» chez O’Brien, Haume, Hall, Nolan, Saunders et Smythe. D’autant plus qu’il est un indépendantiste de la première heure qui milite au sein du Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (RIN) de Pierre Bourgault. Il se tourne donc vers l’assistance judiciaire (l’ancêtre de l’aide juridique) pour obtenir des mandats au criminel. Il tombe par hasard sur le dossier de Vallières et Gagnon qu’il accepte de représenter. Le livre de Vallières, Nègres blancs d’Amérique, constitue à ses yeux «un chef-d’œuvre de littérature révolutionnaire». Le jeune avocat mène avec succès son tout premier procès politique et il obtient l’acquittement des deux têtes pensantes du FLQ, ce qui lui vaudra d’être congédié du cabinet O’Brien, Haume, Hall, Nolan, Saunders et Smythe en 1968.

Me Lemieux gagne en notoriété lors de la crise d’octobre 1970, à la suite de l’enlèvement du ministre Pierre Laporte, en agissant à titre de négociateur du FLQ auprès du gouvernement. Il était hors de question qu’il se fasse conduire aux séances de négociation par des policiers de la Sûreté du Québec (SQ). Un jeune reporter judiciaire prometteur, Claude Poirier, devient donc son chauffeur attitré pendant la durée de la crise. La Loi des mesures de guerre, et l’emprisonnement de centaines de militants indépendantistes sans histoire de violence, constitue l’épreuve la plus pénible de sa carrière.

Robert Lemieux a payé un prix pour sa solidarité avec les felquistes. Avec Pierre Vallières, Charles Gagnon, Michel Chartrand et Jacques Larue-Langlois, il est accusé d’appartenance au FLQ et de conspiration séditieuse pour renverser le gouvernement du Canada. À la suite de l’acquittement de Gagnon et de Larue-Langlois lors d’un premier procès, les accusations contre les trois autres seront retirées au fil du deuxième procès. Me Lemieux défendra par la suite de nombreux membres du FLQ impliqués dans les événements d’octobre 70. «Les juges le haïssaient à mort. Il les avait tous contre lui, à part peut-être un ou deux. C’était un plaideur très humain, très authentique. C’était sa force. Un gars ne pouvait pas lui conter n’importe quoi», se souvient Paul Rose.

La célébrité pesait lourd sur ses épaules. Tombé sous le charme de Sept-Îles, ce Montréalais d’origine y déménage en 1974... pour ne jamais en revenir. Lemieux appréciait la mer, les kilomètres de plage sans fin et les grands espaces de la Côte-Nord. Il a vécu pauvrement de son propre aveu, en travaillant momentanément dans une station service, à une époque où il avait des ennuis avec le Barreau du Québec. Robert Lemieux a cependant pratiqué le métier d’avocat toute sa vie, notamment dans le droit du travail et le droit de la famille. Grâce à ses talents de négociateur, il a parfois ramené l’harmonie au sein de couples brisés en apparence, relate Paul Rose. «Ça ne lui donnait pas d’argent, parce que, là, il perdait sa cause. Mais c’était un homme de principe, un des rares avocats qui ne pensaient pas seulement à l’argent», affirme Paul Rose.

Robert Lemieux a continué de défendre certains clients à Montréal, dont Hans Marotte. En 1988, le jeune étudiant devait répondre de 86 accusations pour avoir déroulé une banderole sur la croix du mont Royal et vandalisé des commerces qui ne respectaient pas la loi 101. Me Lemieux avait très bien su demeurer dans le cadre légal, tout en faisant un autre procès politique, cette fois sur la survie du français, se rappelle Hans Marotte. Celui-ci a été condamné à des travaux communautaires pour 33 accusations de méfaits. Par un merveilleux tour de passe-passe, l’accusation la plus importante, concernant la bannière apposée sur la croix du mont Royal, a été retirée. Robert Lemieux avait réussi à semer la pagaille. «Plus personne ne savait à qui appartenait la croix. Plus personne ne pouvait dire si elle avait été donnée ou prêtée à la Ville par la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Donc, il n’y avait plus de victime!», raconte Hans Marotte en en riant encore.

Michel Chartrand, Robert Lemieux

Michel Chartrand (left) with Robert Lemieux at demonstration of 3,000 in honour of the Patriotes of the 1837-38 insurrection, on the first anniversary of the War Measures crisis, October 16, 1971.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

March in solidarity with the veil, a Quebec Muslim feminist urges

The statement below was published in the Montréal French-language daily Le Devoir on December 31. This simple but powerful appeal by a Muslim feminist should resonate not only with feminists but with all who think of themselves as progressively minded.

The author, Roksana Bahramitash, Roksana_Bahramitash refers in particular to the demand by a government-appointed organization, the Quebec council on the status of women (CSF), that all public sector employees be banned from wearing any “ostentatious religious symbols” in the workplace. The council was clearly referring not to crucifixes but to such things as the Moslem headscarf or hijab. The CSF call for a ban was the primary recommendation in its brief to the Bouchard-Taylor commission on religious accommodation.

The CSF also asked that the government insert a provision in Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms giving “equality between women and men” priority over freedom of religion. The Charest government was quick to comply, in a bill adopted with little debate by the National Assembly. This interpretative clause, you can be sure, will do nothing to overcome the substantive inequality of women in jobs, income, housing, education or health care.

Muslim feminist Sheema Khan was speaking for many of her faith when she wrote, in The Globe & Mail, that the CSF, in its call to ban the hijab, is “essentially telling Muslim women: ‘We know what is best for you; you can’t possibly wear that thing out of free will, and if you do, you are too oppressed to know any better.’ Call it feminism on testosterone. Imagine telling that to Monia Mazigh — who fearlessly challenged three national governments and their security agencies. Yet, if the council has its way, Ms. Mazigh can never run for public office in her hijab, nor teach at a public university.” (Monia Mazigh, the wife of “war on terror” victim Mahir Arar, is a former NDP candidate and university professor.)

The Bouchard-Tremblay commission, in its public hearings across Quebec this fall, heard many such calls for repression of Muslims and other minorities, and they were given wide media coverage. Sadly lacking were strong expressions of solidarity with the victims of these attacks. Most disquieting was the number of ostensible feminists and others in the left and progressive milieus who kept silent or even joined in the heterophobic chorus.

Widely publicized, for example, was the brief of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), Quebec’s second largest trade union federation. It supported a ban on the hijab in schools and other public institutions and called for a “Charte de la laïcité”, or charter of secularism, “to avoid the anarchy” that the union alleged would result from processing reasonable accommodation cases one by one. A union coalition, the Intersyndicale des femmes, claiming to represent 160,000 women, mostly public service employees, likewise called for a “policy of secularism” and suggested it would not be averse to a ban on the wearing of “religious signs or symbols” by government personnel in contact with the public.

Responding to these appeals, Samaa Elibyari of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women reminded the commission that Muslim women routinely face discrimination in the workplace. They don’t need unions on their back, too, she said.

There were some other dissenting voices. Quebec’s major feminist organization, the federation of women (FFQ), did not call for a ban on the hijab or other symbols of religious belief. FFQ president Michèle Asselin told the commission that “there are many faces to feminism” and that the Federation’s membership included even some Catholic nuns. One of the leaders of the World March of Women in 2005, she noted, was a veiled Muslim.

The new left party, Québec solidaire, expressed its opposition to any legislative ban on the wearing of religious symbols by students or public employees, but urged that the latter not allow their “personal, religious or political beliefs” to interfere with their public duties.

Missing from these and virtually all of the briefs and testimony from organizations of a liberal and progressive bent, however, was any recognition that religious belief is essentially a private matter and, for many oppressed minorities, an integral part of their culture and identity, both collective and individual. Some, like Québec solidaire, objected to the Islamophobia behind the calls to ban the veil, and called for concrete measures to help recent immigrants obtain jobs and learn French. But the overriding theme of most of those appearing before the Bouchard-Taylor commission was the need to define or reassert “Quebec values” and ensure that immigrants and minorities adhere to them. The unions and the left joined in the chorus of voices defending the “rights” of the majority, as if they were under attack.

It was left to the minorities to point out that “Quebec values” are not only the secular feminist, egalitarian, etc. values revered by liberals and progressives, but they also comprise, in day to day practice, the values of a white, misogynist, unequal and racist culture that shamelessly discriminates against all those who don’t conform to the officially propagated image of “modernist” Western — read, imperialist — culture. It is not Muslims and other minorities who need to be educated about “Quebec values” (they are constantly reminded of those!) but the majority who need to be educated about the oppressive nature of their own society’s treatment of its minorities.

In a powerful brief to the commission, Présence Musulmane Montréal denounced “the intellectual arrogance of a certain ethnocentric republican feminism that infantilizes and subjugates Muslim women and interprets for them the meaning they give to their clothing, their relationship to their body and their relationship to their spirituality.”

In the following article Roksana Bahramitash proposes a modest action that could help to refocus public attention on some of the key sources behind today’s Islamophobia, such as Canada’s war in Afghanistan. My translation.

A march of solidarity for the wearing of the veil

by Roksana Bahramitash

Research director at the Canada Research Chair in Islam, Pluralism and Globalization of the University of Montréal

At an informal dinner preceding a congress organized by some feminist faculty members at Wilfrid Laurier University, the participants unanimously expressed their frustration at the present obsession over the wearing of the Islamic veil and the growing Islamophobia.

We decided, as a proposed protest, to consider the possibility of organizing a day of solidarity for the wearing of the Islamic veil on International Women’s Day in 2008. For me, a Muslim woman in Quebec, this proposal is of particular significance. However, such an initiative is not a new idea.

Similar protests occurred before the war in Afghanistan broke out, and there was a march of solidarity for wearing the veil in opposition to the “war on terrorism”. Of immense concern to me, however, in view of the debates that have developed during the hearings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, is the position taken by the Conseil du statut de la femme (CSF).

The CSF wants State agents to be prohibited from wearing “religious symbols” in public institutions. This approach to defending women’s rights is based on the theory that the Muslim women of Quebec are obliged to wear the veil, an absolutely false idea refuted by my own research among Muslim women in Montréal. It implies that Muslim women have neither the capacity nor the skill to decide by and for themselves what they want, and that they need some Quebec women to defend their own rights.

The CSF’s approach can be construed as an attempt by some Quebec women to impose a trusteeship over Muslim women, the latter being unable to defend their own rights or make correct decisions. How ironic! Are we now in the same situation as those feminists who once fought against decisions concerning women being made by men?

The CSF’s recommendations to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, and the debate over reasonable accommodation, are a source of consternation, and even anger among Muslim women in Quebec. I have spent some time observing closely the reactions of veiled Muslim women to the Commission’s discussions and the recommendations of the CSF.

Anti-Muslim feeling

My own research among Muslim women shows that there has been a noticeable increase in anti-Muslim sentiment within the Montréal community since the beginning of the public hearings initiated by the Commission and the resulting media coverage. In a focus group formed to discuss the day-to-day issues facing Muslim women, one of the participants said: “I do not feel safe using public transit at night.” She is a Muslim, Black and veiled, and this has become a problem for her when she leaves her office.

Some other members of the group stated that they were encountering a hardening of attitudes among Quebec women and among the employers who have to process job applications by Muslim women.

Although Muslim women are among those with the highest level of education in Canada and Quebec, they have one of the lowest levels of employment. There is a noticeable increase in verbal and physical assault against Muslim women. The CSF’s efforts would have been more useful to Muslim women if it had looked into the issues of racism and sought some solutions to the extremely high unemployment suffered by Muslim women. It would be in the interest of Quebec society to progress beyond some issues that arouse only social tensions and to concentrate on such important issues as poverty and unemployment among minority women.

The origins of the feminist movement in North America go back to the big demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Conseil du statut de la femme has decided not to mobilize against the growing militarization resulting from the Canadian presence in Afghanistan. It has chosen instead to bolster the efforts of those who are arousing Islamophobic sentiments in Quebec. Its efforts to prevent women from exercising their freedom of choice in relation to their clothing prompts us to engage in a march of solidarity on the theme of wearing the veil on the occasion of International Women’s Day in 2008.

Roksana Bahramitash is the author of Liberation from Liberalization: Gender and Globalization in South East Asia. Liberation from Liberalization