Former senator Jean-Louis Roux dies at 90

Jean-Louix Roux is shown in a 1976 photo from the National Theatre School.
Jean-Louix Roux is shown in a 1976 photo from the National Theatre School. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, École nationale de théâtre/André le Coz

MONTREAL – Former senator Jean-Louis Roux, who was forced to resign as Quebec lieutenant-governor after admitting he wore a Nazi swastika as a youngster, has died at the age of 90.

Roux’s death on Thursday was confirmed by the Theatre du Nouveau Monde, which he helped found in 1951.

Roux had been a prominent member of Quebec’s theatre community for decades before he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1987.

Seven years later, then-prime minister Jean Chretien came calling and appointed him a senator.

Roux triggered the ire of the Yes side in the referendum campaign in 1995 when he compared separatists to Nazis.

And many sovereigntists were even more infuriated when Chretien named the ardent federalist Quebec’s lieutenant-governor in 1996 without the approval of the provincial government.

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But it was a mandate that lasted just a few months.

What sparked Roux’s resignation was his admission in a magazine interview he had drawn a swastika on his lab coat in 1942 when he was a pre-medical student.

He also said he participated as a 19-year-old in an anti-conscription protest which degenerated into vandalism against shops believed to be owned by Jews. Roux said he was not among those who smashed the windows.

Roux attributed his actions to youthful bravado and said he did not support Adolf Hitler’s regime.

He fought back tears at a news conference a day after his resignation as he apologized to the Jewish community.

”I ask everyone to be generous enough to forgive me,” he said.

”I’m also speaking to the Jewish community, the victim of odious Nazi repression during the 1930s and ’40s,” Roux read from a statement after meeting with Jewish leaders.

”The carefree attitude of youth may be an explanation but it can’t in any way serve as an excuse and especially not as justification. I committed a mistake by yielding…to the anti-Semitic feelings that poisoned our minds at the time.”

Roux went on to head the Canada Council for the Arts in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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In an interview Friday, Chretien praised Roux as a man of culture and a great actor, writer and producer.

“He was respected across the land for his performance and for his dedication to the arts in our country and it’s a big loss,” he told The Canadian Press.

Chretien said he believes Roux was treated unfairly after he admitted to wearing the swastika.

“He said they were doing that as a kind of a joke — he was a student of medicine at that time — just to have his colleagues laugh and it turned out to haunt him a long, long time after that.

“He did not lose my respect. On the contrary he was a strong Canadian and in his milieu it was not very popular and he had a lot of guts to stress his faith in Canada and I thought of him as a great Canadian all my life.”

A prominent member of Montreal’s Jewish community who was at the news conference where Roux apologized remembered him as a ”very passionate individual.”

“I had begun to know him a little bit before that episode,” Robert Libman, a former member of the legislature, told The Canadian Press.

”He’d become a very staunch federalist as I recall and he was an example of many former nationalist Quebecers who flirted with Nazism or Nazi doctrine in the ’30s and ’40s, but eventually came around to reject Quebec nationalism.”

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Libman said he believes Roux’s apology was sincere.

”He was genuinely shaken up by the scandal that had broken because he had broken with his beliefs in the past and he very much rejected Quebec nationalism at that time and that’s why it was so painful for him.”

(With files from Caroline St-Pierre)