The writer Pierre Turgeon against Réno-Dépôt: towards privatization of history? In December 1992, businessman Pierre Michaud, president of Réno-Dépôt, suggested to writer Pierre Turgeon that he write a biography of his great-uncle Paul-Hervé Desrosiers, who founded Val Royal in the 1930s. This company is at the origin of Réno-Dépôt. Michaud speaks of his great-uncle as a flamboyant character, a friend of Duplessis and his party. He admits at once that P.-H. was no saint. An agreement is signed in June 1993, which provides that Turgeon will receive $21,000 to do historical research on the subject. He will then propose the plan for the future biography. This he does as planned, in November 1993. At that time, if this plan did not meet with Michaud’s approval, Turgeon agreed to give him the documents and interviews then in his possession and to give up writing the book. On the other hand, if Michaud accepts, he agrees to give the writer complete freedom. But he immediately accepts the proposal of five pages as well as the title of P.H. le magnifique, l’éminence grise de Duplessis. In this document, Turgeon indicates that he will not be content to tell how the great-uncle built his financial empire, but also how he exercised occult power over an entire period of Quebec’s history, from Duplessis to the arrival of Bourassa. In order not to limit his independence as a writer in any way, Turgeon undertakes to reimburse the sum of $33,000 that will be advanced to him during the writing of the book from his future copyright on the work. In January 1995, Turgeon signs a publishing contract with Sogides, which specifically stipulates that Paul-Hervé Desrosiers’ royalties will be paid to Michaud up to a maximum of $33,000 and that afterward, they will revert to the author. The writer continues his work. His work is announced twice in the color catalog that Sogides distributes to the entire Quebec book network. The manuscript is read, approved, and started by the publisher. It is expected to be published in the fall of 1996. Suddenly, in the midst of editorial production, silence falls on the project. Neither Sogides nor Michaud returned his calls to Turgeon. The latter gave Sogides formal notice to confirm the book’s release date, failing which he would conclude that the publisher did not intend to fulfill his obligations and would have the book published elsewhere. Almost immediately after this intervention, Michaud calls the writer and arranges a meeting at the beginning of July. He told him that he did not intend to publish the book unless all passages that had anything to do with his great-uncle’s political connections were removed. Turgeon refuses to comply. He asserts that he does not recognize any contractual or moral right to Michaud on the content of his work. All the more so since the millionaire had already read the final version of the manuscript deposited with Sogides six months earlier and had not raised any objections. However, the author is ready to correct factual errors that could be pointed out to him. Michaud replied that he would see Turgeon again in court. He claims that he has twelve lawyers on his payroll: consequently, the writer has no chance of winning and he will have to incur legal fees that will ruin him, while they will only represent peanuts for the president of Réno-Dépôt. On August 18, 1996, Michaud’s legal war to suppress Turgeon’s work begins in Superior Court, where he obtains an interlocutory injunction prohibiting the publication of P.H. le magnifique, l’éminence grise de Duplessis scheduled for September by Jacques Lanctôt, publisher. In December 1996, when the debate on Réno-Dépôt’s motion began, Michaud’s lawyers demanded that the trial be held in secret, which Judge Michel Côté refused. The businessman immediately appealed this decision to the Quebec Court of Appeal. In the meantime, Pierre Turgeon has received the support of the UNEEQ, La Fédération des Journalistes du Québec, La Ligue des Droits et des Libertés, as well as many personalities from the artistic, journalistic, and political worlds. All of them consider that Réno-Dépôt’s legal proceedings threaten freedom of expression and the public’s right to information. In what way do they do so? In his request, Michaud invoked article 35 of the new Civil Code of Québec, which stipulates that every person, as well as his heirs, has the right to respect for his private life. “In the name of a new article of the Civil Code invoked by Pierre Michaud’s lawyers,” says the Fédération des Journalistes du Québec, “Quebec writers may no longer be able to write about the private lives of local heroes without the systematic assent of their parents or heirs. In an editorial dated January 2, 1997, the Montreal daily The Gazette takes Pierre Turgeon’s side and argues that section 35 violates freedom of expression. as such, it also violates the Canadian Constitution, since it seems to be able to prohibit the publication of biographies of public figures who have died without the consent of their descendants. Will this century, which has been censored by countless ideologies, end with the emergence of a new form of censorship, this time in the name of private property? Will we witness the privatization of history? Will Quebecers be prevented from knowing their past? If Michaud and Réno-Dépôt were to win their case, we would have to seriously question the direction Quebec society intends to take when faced with questions of freedom of expression and the public’s right to information.
– Pierre Turgeon