With Claude Ryan’s death on February 9, Quebecers -– and all Canadians – lost a man of great lucidity, stamina and generosity. As well as, if not better than, René Lévesque, Ryan articulated the goals of the Quiet Revolution. If any one document can be claimed to do so, the set of constitutional reforms laid out in his 1980 “Beige Paper” epitomized the political aspirations of his generation of Quebec leaders.
Ryan sought throughout his life to define le juste milieu – between conformity to his Catholic faith and the compromises required of a very public life; between academic abstraction and observations ponctuelles in the daily press; between advocacy for Quebec nationalism and defence of Canadian federalism; between support for the liberating changes of post-1960 Quebec and hope that those liberated from the constraints of the parish would remain faithful to the wisdom of the Church; between the need for a generous welfare state and a puritan sense of the duty of the individual to work and be useful to society.
A convinced Quebec nationalist, Ryan nonetheless sought out and communicated with Canadians across the country. This was how I came, in the last five years of his life, to know him. He attended a seminar I gave at the University of Montreal, and afterward he joined us for a modest lunch at a restaurant along nearby Côte-des-Neiges.
Readers of Inroads had the opportunity to appreciate Claude Ryan’s writings. In 1999, he used Inroads as means to communicate to Canadians his critique of the Social Union Framework Agreement, a document that in his opinion – and mine – flouted the spirit of Canadian federalism. The next year we published, in translation, an epistolary exchange between André Burelle and Ryan on what is and what should be Quebec’s role in the Canadian federation.
Ryan was attracted to St. Augustine’s effort to reconcile Christian faith with active participation in the affairs of the world. In 2001 we published Ryan’s essay on the appropriate role of the Christian engaged in what he described as le rude métier of politics. Knowing his passionate interest in defining a just compromise on language policy, we invited him to review Marie McAndrew’s Immigration et diversité à l’école for the Winter/Spring 2003 issue. Written by an education professor, this book on teaching the children of immigrants won the Donner Foundation prize for best policy book of 2002.
The last time we met was for coffee on the second floor of the McGill University bookstore, in the spring of 2003. As always, he was working. He had just finished delivering a lecture in a course he was offering on Catholic social thought. I introduced him to my brother and my niece, a McGill student. He had had problems with his stomach, he allowed, but he thought that his health was now restored. It was not.
— John Richards
I leave this world with regret …
An excerpt from Claude Ryan’s final testament Read by his son André Ryan at his funeral on February 13 Translated by John Richards
I leave this world with regret, for I liked very much living in it. I leave it with sincere gratitude for those whose friendship, support and advice allowed me to lead a full and generally happy life. I beg the indulgence of those to whom I gave offence by my words and deeds, and I ask God to free me from all thoughts of bitterness or vindictiveness directed at those with whom I have had quarrels or disagreements. I pray God to pardon me for the many times when my acts and thoughts strayed from His will. I humbly ask Him to accept me in His peace.
I thank the Roman Catholic Church for having given the moral and spiritual framework without which my fragile being would often have wavered. The Catholic Church is above all a teacher about life. Better than any individual, it knows the aspirations and the secrets of the human heart. The influences that opened to me the richness of Christianity began with lessons learned from my family, school and parish. They also include my participation in Catholic Action movements, my study of church history and frequent and assiduous reading of church documents and of spiritual and religious writers. I cite also the example of countless priests, religious and lay people who entered my life at one moment or another.
I would have liked to spend more time with the Bible. Only in my years of retirement did I find the necessary scientific and religious foundations to do so.
It is principally to the Catholic Church that our people owe our having survived, with honour and dignity, the many trials to which we have been subjected. My deepest wish is that, despite the changes of recent decades, our people find happiness and liberty in the spiritual and moral teachings of Jesus Christ, and especially the teaching of respect for life. These teachings find their most honest expression, in my opinion, in the magisterium and ministry of the Catholic Church. But while this is my personal conviction, I have witnessed with joy the growing openness of the Catholic Church under recent popes, and especially under John Paul II, toward other Christian denominations and all religions that seek to know, honour and love God. I leave this life hoping that the world’s religious families will move toward greater unity.
I thank the varied movements, associations, institutions, and organizations that, in the course of my adult life, enabled me to be useful to our society and to participate in its development. I am especially grateful to the educational institutions with which I have been associated; each of them shaped me. I say the same for the Catholic Action movements, an extraordinary school for la vie engagée. At Le Devoir I learned to grasp the deep roots of our people’s attachment to preserving their identity. I also appreciate the many, many religious, social, cultural and economic associations to which I belonged.
The Quebec Liberal Party has displayed remarkable historical continuity and has repeatedly been able to renew its vigour. Its capacity for renewal has been based on its respect for the values of liberty and justice, its identification with the aspirations and struggles of our people and its political pragmatism. I wish to thank the people of my constituency, Argenteuil, whose faithful and generous support was indispensable to my political career. In the National Assembly and the government of Quebec, I was proud and honoured to serve for a number of years in the company of men and women who represented with dignity the rich diversity of our society. And finally, I look back with gratitude on the many Canadian institutions – journals, universities, governments, the Order of Canada – that, while not necessarily sharing my views, showed confidence in me or at least listened to me during my professional and political career.
I leave this life hoping that Quebec will continue to be part of the Canadian political collectivity. While I am very conscious of the difficulties experienced by Quebecers in trying to change the federation, I am convinced that it is in the best interest of Quebec and the rest of Canada to pursue their destiny within a common political framework. Canadian federalism seems to me a more propitious context in which to develop the values of liberty and mutual respect without which the linguistic duality and cultural diversity characteristic of Canada – and, to a growing extent, Quebec – will not be able to survive and prosper. Federalism, in my opinion, offers better guarantees for the preservation of the cultural values of each of our two founding societies than separation into two countries.
In the case of Quebec, however, these guarantees would be more secure if the rest of the country more explicitly accepted its distinct character, and the legitimate aspirations flowing from that character. I say this with conviction but not fanaticism or bitterness, and with respect for divergent or opposing opinions. I recognize that the final word on this matter must come at the appropriate time from the judgement of the people, freely and clearly expressed.
My final wish is that governments, political parties, the many associations engaged in public life, the media and the public take more interest in the fate of the weakest in our society. True democracy must reconcile the values of freedom with those of social justice. The gap between the poor and the rich has widened too much in recent years. There are too many unjustifiable inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power. This growing inequality is a formidable challenge to those engaged in politics.