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“Pit Bill’s” bite is as sharp as ever

July, 2010

When former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard spoke out about Quebec sovereignists facing up to reality and abandoning their separatist aspirations, veteran political journalist William Johnson was asked by the Globe and Mail to pen an opinion piece.

“Not bad for an old has-been,” says Johnson, whose uncompromising stance on unity made him one of the most reviled political figures among Quebec separatists.

“Pit Bill” Johnson’s leadership of Alliance Quebec is remembered as the most turbulent period in the history of the now-defunct anglo-rights lobby group.

There’s no slowing down this bicycling enthusiast and resident of Gatineau.

At 79, Johnson is a regular commentator on the CPAC political affairs channel.

Johnson’s parents might have appeared to be a mismatch: his father a successful if coarse salesman of Scottish origin, his mother a pious French-Canadian Roman Catholic. French-English intermarriage as something inherently destructive is one of the themes he denounced. In his 1991 book Anglophobie: Made in Quebec, he examined Lionel Groulx’s novel l’Appel de la Race, which deals with characters of mixed heritage.

“Children who have mixed race will be confused, they’ll have two souls fighting for domination within them,” Johnson says, summing up Groulx’s concept.

There’s no slowing down former Quebec premier William Johnson, 79, a bicycling and Canada enthusiast. Photo: Martin C. Barry

“I don’t feel any conflict, I feel enriched, I feel it was a privilege.” Having started his professional life as an academic with a background in sociology, his conversion to journalism came during a Martin Luther King freedom march he joined in 1967 in the deep South.

He noted the easy access journalists had to the famous civil-rights leader and wished he could do the same. Although he was already in his mid-30s and was told he was too old to get started in journalism, he ignored the advice.

Fast-forward through a career spent as a political correspondent for the Globe and Mail and the Gazette, as well as an induction into the Order of Canada in 1998.

Johnson’s growing sense of indignation over unresolved Canadian unity questions spilled over from the op-ed pages into outright political activism. He candidly refers to his election as president of Alliance Quebec as a “hostile takeover” that pitted him against a complacent leadership at Alliance.

It was around this time that the “Pit Bill” persona started growing. Johnson’s position on Canadian unity adheres closely to the decision of Canada’s Supreme Court in August of 1998, when it confirmed that a unilateral declaration of independence by Quebec would amount to revolution.

“Quebecers can aspire to independence, but within the constitutional framework it would require an amendment to the constitution of Canada,” he says.

“And preceding that amendment, there must be an agreement in which the rights of all are maintained. The issue is not referendum, referendum, referendum.

“The issue is agreement, agreement, agreement.”



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