National funerals: Quebec women are the forgotten ones

Sexism creeps in everywhere, even in death. Among the twenty or so outstanding personalities who received the ultimate recognition from the Quebec government at the time of their death, there are no women, outside the political world.

Whether in the visual arts, in cinema, in literature, in sports, in union activism, in the media or in any other sector, no woman has ever distinguished herself sufficiently in the eyes of the Quebec government to merit the highest honours, a national funeral, at the time of her death.

The picture looks quite different if you are a man, especially if you can handle a hockey stick.

On Tuesday, Guy Lafleur will be the third hockey player to have the privilege of being part of the select club of personalities entitled to a national funeral, after Jean Béliveau (2014) and Maurice Richard (2000), an eloquent demonstration of the special value placed on this sport in Quebec.

Last Thursday, Premier Francois Legault also attended the funeral of another hockey player, Mike Bossy, and asked that the Quebec flag be flown at half-mast at the National Assembly.

Sports journalist Richard Garneau was also honoured with a national commemoration in 2013.

The choice to offer the family of the deceased a national funeral rests with the premier. It is, therefore, a political decision, arbitrary and not based on any objective criteria.

In view of the deceased's accomplishments, it can be assumed that the decision is also largely based on the personality's popularity or on a subjective appreciation of his or her contribution to the influence of Quebec.

Since 1959, a total of about 30 people have had official funerals in Quebec, including 10 who received the ultimate honour, a state funeral, and about 20 personalities who were offered a national funeral or national commemoration, the secular version.

No women received state funerals, normally reserved for premiers or presidents of the National Assembly. Exceptions to this rule were made for two ministers: former Liberal minister Gérard-D. Lévesque, in 1993, and former minister Pierre Laporte, assassinated in 1970, during the October Crisis.

Two women politicians were honoured at the time of their death. Marie-Claire Kirkland-Casgrain, a pioneer of women's rights and the first woman elected to the National Assembly, was the only woman to have a state funeral in 2016. The death of another pioneer, former PQ minister, broadcaster and author Lise Payette, was marked by a national commemoration in 2018.

But outside of politics, there are no women's names on the list of personalities honoured by the Quebec government at the time of their death.

In 1996, in an effort to better honour the memory of non-elected personalities who had distinguished themselves in their field of activity, the government created a new category of national funerals.

The first to benefit from it was the author of 'L'homme rapaillé', Gaston Miron (1996). Other important figures of Quebec literature have not had this honour, such as Anne Hébert (2000) or Marie-Claire Blais (2021), writers of international renown, or Michèle Lalonde (2021), author of the famous poem "Speak White."

If painters Jean-Paul Riopelle (2002) and Fernand Leduc (2014) were privileged to be offered a national funeral in the first case and a national commemoration in the other, it was not the case for the painter and glass artist Marcelle Ferron (2001), signatory of the Refus global, or Corno (2016), born Joanne Corneau, who sold her paintings around the world, to name only a few.

Two great artisans of Quebec cinema have also been honoured by the province: Gilles Carle (2009) and Michel Brault (2013). The first had a national funeral, the second, a national commemoration.

Still in the cultural field, Céline Dion's impresario, René Angélil received high honours in 2016.

The only representative of the union world to appear on the list, the former president of the FTQ Louis Laberge (2002) was also entitled to the recognition of the State.

In a category of its own, Quebec offered a national commemoration to Denis Blanchette, a Metropolis employee and victim of the failed attack on Premier Pauline Marois on the night of her election victory in September 2012.

Even when you move in political circles, the ultimate reward is not automatic. Apart from Kirkland-Casgrain and Payette, those who have made their mark to the point of state recognition are the father of Bill 101, Camille Laurin, (1999), former minister and former leader of the Quebec Liberal Party (QLP) and former director of Le Devoir Claude Ryan (2004), former Liberal minister Claude Béchard (2010), former Minister of Education Paul Gérin-Lajoie (2018), all of whom were given state funerals, and former PQ Minister of Justice Marc-André Bédard (2022), who was given a state memorial.

The organization of national funerals or commemorations is done in collaboration with the family of the deceased. Normally, the government takes charge of the entire organization, including the funeral chapel, the religious ceremony or tribute to the deceased, as well as the lowering of the flag on the day of the funeral. The average cost to taxpayers is approximately $50,000.

To date, eight premiers have had state funerals: Maurice Duplessis (1959), Daniel Johnson (1968), Jean-Jacques Bertrand (1973), Jean Lesage (1980), René Lévesque (1987), Robert Bourassa (1996), Jacques Parizeau (2015) and Bernard Landry (2018).

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on May 1, 2022. 

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