The cause for the freedom of expression

Dossier de Presse Article 35 avant et après abrogation Le jugement Audet L’affaire Turgeon Lettres d’appui

 

Who was P.-H. Desrosiers? A secret maker of prime ministers in the history of Quebec. This flamboyant businessman pulled the strings of power behind the figures of Maurice Duplessis, Antonio Barrette, Jean Lesage, Daniel Johnson and yes, even behind such men as René Lévesque and Robert Bourassa. In December 1992, businessman Pierre Michaud, President of Réno-Dépot, solicited Quebec writer Pierre Turgeon to work on a biography of his great-uncle, the late Paul-Hervé Desrosiers, founder of Val Royal in the thirties, the enterprise that launched Réno-Depot. Michaud, who depicts his great-uncle as a friend of Duplessis, earnestly admits that P. H. was not a saint. A contract involving Michaud and Turgeon is then signed in 1993. Under the terms of this contract, Turgeon was to receive $21,000 in return for conducting research and preparing an outline for a possible biography on Desrosiers. He subsequently submitted the outline, as agreed, in November 1993. Thereupon, if Michaud were to reject the proposal, Turgeon was expected to hand over the documents and interviews in his possession and to forsake his plans for writing the book. On the other hand, if Michaud were to accept it, he was to do so in such a way that granted full liberty to the author. Now he fully agrees to the five-page proposal as well as to the projected title of P. H. le magnifique, I’éminence grise de Duplessis (P.-H. the magnificent, secret advisor to Duplessis). In the said document, Turgeon specifies that he will not only describe how the great-uncle built his financial empire, but also how he practiced his concealed influence over an entire period of Quebec history, from Duplessis to Bourassa. In order to protect his independence as a writer, Turgeon commits to reimburse the $33,000 advance intended to enable him to finish the book. In January 1995 Turgeon signs a second contract, this time with Sogides, a Montreal publisher, that stipulates that the loan of $34,000, will be repaid to Michaud through sales of the book’ and that all subsequent proceeds will be the author’s.

The writer’s work is kept up and is advertised on two occasions in Sogides’ catalog that is distributed throughout the Quebec publishing network. The manuscript was approve by the publisher and the release date was set for the fall of 1996. Suddenly, in the middle of the production phase, silence shrouds the project. Neither Sogides nor Michaud return any of Turgeon’s calls. The latter gives formal notice to Sogides requesting confirmation of the release date; the failure to respond would be taken as a lack of intention on the publisher’s part to release the book. Thereupon, Michaud contacts the writer and arranges for an appointment in early July. He discloses that he has no intention of allowing the publishing of the book unless all passages relating to his great-uncle’s political ties are stamped out. Turgeon refuses to comply and proclaims that Michaud has no contractual or moral rights on the book’s contents, particularly as the millionaire had already examined, and made no objection to, the final version of the manuscript as it was submitted to Sogides six months earlier. Nonetheless, the author stated that he was willing to correct any factual errors that could be pointed out to him. Michaud’s reaction was that he would drag Turgeon to court and that he had twelve lawyers on his payroll to back him up. Consequently, the author would stand no chance of winning and would incur huge legal fees that are bound to ruin him financially. On August 18, 1996, the judicial war, waged by Michaud to abolish Turgeon’s work, began at the Quebec Superior Court. Michaud won a temporary injunction that forbids the publication of the book expected at that lime in September (that contract was now in the hands of another Quebec publisher, Jacques Lanctôt). In December 1996, while controversy surrounds Réno-Depot’s petition, Michaud’s lawyers request that the hearings be closed to the public, a request that was rejected by judge Michel Côté. At this point the businessman goes to Quebec Court of Appeal. In the meantime. Pierre Turgeon wins, the support of the UNEEQ, the Quebec Federation of Journalists, the Civil Liberties Union, the Association of Quebec historians and that of a number of the province’s eminent artists, journalists and political figures. They all consider that the attitude regarding Réno-Depot is a threat to freedom of expression and to the right of access to information. Michaud invoked article 35 in Quebec’s Civil Code, which came into effect on January 1, 1994. The new article states that every person has the right to the respect of his reputation and privacy and that no one may invade the privacy of a person without the consent of the person or his heirs unless authorized by law. The Federation of Quebec Journalists assert that the Civil Code article referred to by Michaud’s lawyers will prevent Quebec journalists from writing about the private lives of local heroes without the routine assent of their family or heirs. In an editorial dated January 2, 1997, the Montreal Gazette sides with Pierre Turgeon and maintains that article 35 violates the freedom of speech and opposes the Canadian Constitution since it prohibits the publishing of biographies of deceased public figures without the consent of their descendants. Will this age, that has witnessed the suppression of innumerable ideologies, end up paving the way for of a new mode of censorship, practiced in the name of private property? Are we ill the process of endorsing a new wave of historical privatization? Will we prevent a people from understanding and recognizing its own past? Should Michaud and Réno-Dépôt ever win this battle, one should seriously question the policies and attitudes embraced by Quebec society inasmuch as liberty of expression and the right of access to information are concerned.

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