It can be fascinating to see the gap between how people perceive themselves and how they are perceived by others. By all appearances, Lise Bissonnette is a formidable presence, whether as a reporter, an editor, a novelist, or an administrator. While deeply charming, she is known to be imperious, writing with a pen that can draw blood and responding to anything she finds fatuous or ill-informed with a devastating retort. “I have often been described as an authoritarian person,” she concedes to the historian Pascale Ryan in a new book of interviews. “I would qualify that with a nuance, saying clearly that I am not ‘non-directive.’ I do not at all have the disposition to live in what they call ‘flat organigrams,’ where there is perfect equality of functions. I believe in a line of authority, and it turns out that I am not afraid to use it.”
Bissonnette has been in the public eye for nearly five decades, but perhaps her two most memorable moments came in the pages of Le Devoir. In a 1980 editorial, she tore a strip off Lise Payette, a Parti Québécois cabinet minister, for describing Madeleine Ryan, the wife of the Quebec Liberal Party’s leader, Claude Ryan, as an Yvette (a sexist term for a docile, subservient woman, from mid-century school primers). And in 1992, Bissonnette weighed in on the Charlottetown Accord referendum with a single-word position: a massive “Non.”*
Over the years, Bissonnette has given every appearance of self-assurance: poised, authoritative, quick-witted, well-informed, and articulate. “I perceive the world with an eye that some would say is lucid, and others cruel,” she says of her fiction, for example. But in conversation with Ryan, she also reveals a deep sense of inferiority and insecurity. Raised in Rouyn, the sixth child of a man who ran a second-hand store, she was hungry for knowledge and frustrated by the fact that her hometown, about an hour east of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, lacked a library: “As a result, I wasted years of intellectual development that I have spent my life trying to catch up.”
Like many of her generation — she was born in 1945 — Bissonnette rebelled against the confining conservatism of the Roman Catholic Church, including the nuns who taught her at school. Consequently, she’s critical of the current trend among historians to dismiss the idea that Quebec under Maurice Duplessis’s leadership endured the “grande noirceur” (great darkness) and to diminish the significance of the change that followed the election of the Quebec Liberals in 1960. For Bissonnette, there was indeed a period of emptiness and ignorance, of widespread illiteracy and isolation, of exploitation and conformity. The notion that the Quiet Revolution is somehow a myth is outrageous. “It is understandable that I should be attached to the immense rupture that was the Quiet Revolution,” she says, “and that I despair to find that it is often denied.”
Growing up in a house with few books and in a town bereft of intellectual stimulation, Bissonnette was haunted by a sense of inferiority for years. As far as she was concerned, students of literature were already widely read and had a strong sense of general culture, which she lacked. Convinced that she was not well enough prepared to study great works of fiction, she opted for a teaching degree.
At the Université de Montréal, Bissonnette became involved in student journalism, working for the campus paper Le Quartier latin, first as a proofreader, spending the night at the printer three times a week, and then writing editorials. “We, who were socialists, indépendantistes, and, in general, atheist or at least non-practising,” she recalls in a self-mocking tone, saw Le Devoir, Montreal’s intellectual journal, as a slightly outdated competitor.
After getting her degree, she went to the Université de Strasbourg in 1968, before transferring to Paris the following year and then returning home to work at the Université du Québec à Montréal. But a sense of frustration and inferiority continued. “All of my intellectual life is a story of catching up,” she says. “Even my doctoral studies, I did them from 2010 to 2015. A final stage where I found, at last, what I had been waiting for forever.”
In 1973, Bissonnette learned that Le Devoir was looking for an education reporter and applied. The director, Claude Ryan (no relation to Pascale Ryan), had never hired women, because he worried that when they got married and had children they could not work nights. But he gave Bissonnette, who was single, the job and was soon encouraging her to write about politics, first in Quebec City and then in Ottawa.
As a young reporter, Bissonnette had to cover her boss when he gave speeches and lectures. After Ryan became leader of the Quebec Liberal Party in 1978 — and particularly after she became an editorialist — she watched his efforts to reform federalism go from one failure to another. In 1990, she attended the Liberal convention in Calgary, where the party’s new leader, Jean Chrétien, gratefully embraced Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells, who had helped sink the Meech Lake Accord the year before. When she bumped into New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, whose withdrawal of support for the constitutional agreement had also led to its demise, he sobbed, “Lise, what have I done?” That was his problem, she replied. “I didn’t feel the least compassion for him.”
Bissonnette often analyzed constitutional questions with editorials that could run an entire page. “The path to sovereignty was always open until the referendum of 1995,” she maintains. “Under my direction, Le Devoir broke with its traditional support of federalism. I didn’t make a solemn decision. The evidence was there. The Canada option, in the sense that Claude Ryan still hoped for in his writings, that of a resumption of negotiations over a special constitutional status, was no longer possible. Finally, the status quo was victorious, and fatalism settled easily into the political class. The status quo is not a gulag, as René Lévesque once said. The few reformists still in the Liberal Party of Quebec gave up, the sovereignists went from defeat to defeat until the Parti Québécois itself was undermined.”
When Bissonnette became the publisher of Le Devoir in June 1990, it looked as if it might have been the classic case of giving a woman a job that was doomed to fail. The paper, never financially comfortable, was in dire straits. She succeeded in turning it around, reviving it and strengthening its coverage. She also proved her skills as an administrator. Eight years later, the premier, Lucien Bouchard, asked her to run what would become the flagship of Quebec’s library system, the Grande Bibliothèque du Québec, and merge it with the provincial archives. The result proved a great success.
Subsequently, Bissonnette became the chair of the board of the Université du Québec à Montréal and headed a task force that made recommendations for the future of the city’s Olympic installations — two experiences that left her with a feeling of failure and the conclusion that too much depended on decisions by other people.
These interviews make two things very clear. Lise Bissonnette succeeded in not only catching up to but surpassing her more fortunate contemporaries. And she is at her best when she is in charge.
* The print version of this review incorrectly stated that Lise Bissonnette’s “Non” editorial was in response to the 1995 Quebec referendum. The magazine regrets the error.