On June 16, 2003, the ardent separatist leader Pierre Bourgault died at the Hotel-Dieu of Montreal. All the members of the Quebec separatist family mourned the loss of this mythological figure. Bourgault was the main propagator of the separatist idea at the beginning of the 1960s. He was not among the founders of Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (RIN), but he used his great talent as an orator to spread the new separatist gospel everywhere in the province. He claimed to have delivered more than 3,500 speeches in his life, all about Quebec independence and almost all in the 60s with the RIN. Gilles Réhaume, another separatist leader, said that Bourgault had been the greatest French Canadian speaker since Louis-Joseph Papineau. He was the Brigham Young of the hard-line separatist movement. A marginal idea in 1960, separatism played a major role in the 1966 Quebec general election where the RIN, led by Bourgault, got more than six per cent.
Bourgault had all the qualities of a hero. He even sacrificed himself and his movement for the “cause” of Quebec separation. In 1968, he decided to dissolve the RIN to join the moderate PQ, even though René Lévesque hated the radicalism of Bourgault and his party. RIN members had to join the new separatist party as individuals because Lévesque rejected the idea of an association with the RIN (even if the RIN never used physical violence, unlike the FLQ). Bourgault was able to make all the necessary sacrifices for the “cause,” even though he was very proud himself.
On June 21, he received a saint and hero’s funeral, even though Liberal Premier Jean Chrest refused to hold a “national” funeral. This was one positive side-effect of the recent Liberal victory. Had PQ leader Bernard Landry been premier, he would have organized a gigantic public funeral. At the explicit request of Bourgault, the ceremony was held at the splendid Notre-Dame Basilica in old Montreal even though he was an atheist. For the first time in the church’s history, a completely secular funeral ceremony was held at Notre-Dame Basilica. Bourgault did not want any “curé” (priest) near his coffin. He was not only an atheist, but was strongly anticlerical and opposed to all kinds of religious belief (perhaps a consequence of his homosexuality).
Why did he want his funeral to be held in such a place? One of his friends said that it was his last mockery against the church. The vicar of Notre-Dame, Msgr. Yvon Bigras, read a short notice at the beginning of the ceremony indicating that Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, Archbishop of Montreal, gave a special permission for this strange ceremony with a homosexual radio-host as main “celebrant.” During the show, all his atheist friends talked about the “great soul” and the accomplishments of Saint Pierre. Another radio host with whom he was working at the French CBC, Marie-France Bazzo, underlined the fact that Bourgault could not be canonized because he had had a lot of “fun” in his life and that he would have preferred hell anyway. God was mocked in his own sanctuary with the complicity of his priests.
The archbishop of Montreal was in an awkward position because every year he receives millions in government funding to repair old churches in the name of national patrimony. If it is national patrimony, Notre-Dame Basilica should be open to the national “hero” Bourgault, even if he does not believe in God, even if he despises the Catholic Church and her ceremonies.
Bourgault has entered the new Quebec martyrology with poet Gaston Miron, singer Félix Leclerc, painter Jean-Paul Riopelle and political leader René Lévesque. They are the saints of the new Quebec, the apostate Quebec. Saints without faith and without morality. Is this not coherent with the new nationalism that generated a dead nation, an aborted Quebec? The new nationalists are celebrating whereas Quebec is dying. For Lionel Groulx, father of the traditional nationalism, this national apostasy was the tragedy of his old age. He saw it as the beginning of the end for the French-Canadian nation.