When his death was announced, many journalists who cover politics were left with a strange sense of loss. We knew him so well. Not the private man, who was always rather secretive, but the public man. For 25 years, covering Quebec politics meant covering René Lévesque—and vice versa. We had grown accustomed to his style, to his way of thinking.
He was always late. There was always something wrong with his suit, or tie, or shoes.
When he became premier in 1976, his wife had to drag him to a tailor. His speeches, which moved and energized so many packed halls, were improvised from notes scribbled on small pieces of paper or the back of a cigarette pack.
He was a heavy smoker and often ran out of cigarettes during news conferences.
When more and more journalists became nonsmokers, he had more and more trouble borrowing cigarettes.
Shrewd: He would sprinkle his speeches, or his comments, with extensive digressions, and leave many sentences hanging in midair.
Reporting his comments was an excruciating job. We knew what he meant to say, from his expressions and his tone of voice, but when his words were printed they could be difficult to understand, with many unfinished phrases. He was shrewd. Sometimes, his restless style of talking served him well in maintaining ambiguity about an issue.
René Lévesque was a man of many paradoxes. A fiery orator in public, he was shy and reserved in private, alternately charming and brutal, generous and resentful. On good days, he would flash his famous grin, a strange mixture of irony and compassion. On bad days, he would exude anger and look for scapegoats. Like all politicians, he wanted and needed power, but he was embarrassed by unbridled admiration and loud applause. He could, as a political leader, arouse strong emotions, but he hated any kind of emotional outburst. That is why he shuffled his cabinet so rarely; he
hated having to deal with frustrated and emotional ministers.
Lévesque was a strong man, with boundless energy. On the campaign trail, he exhausted much younger aides. He did not drink much alcohol, but consumed vast amounts of coffee. He was something of a night owl and
liked to play poker late into the night (many of my male colleagues played with him on one occasion or another). He also was a cultured intellectual and a sensitive man who appreciated Mozart, the most subtle of all composers. His widow, Corinne, insisted that excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem be played at his funeral.
Novels: Since one of his main goals was to protect French culture in Quebec, his politics often led him to France, but he felt more at ease in the United States. He spent most of his summer holidays in Ogunquit, on the Maine coast, with his wife and piles of
books, catching up with some of the novels and essays he had missed during the year.
Democrat: He could be very thoughtful, especially with ordinary people. He made sure that his poll workers had something to eat on election nights. He worried about security guards being cold in an unheated corridor of the national assembly. He stopped and listened to the humble and the unknown. But Lévesque was never a populist. He was a left-leaning liberal, a nationalist and a committed democrat. Among his achievements, there was none that he himself valued more than the 1977 law that put strict limits on the financing of political parties in Quebec. When he left politics, he was not, and certainly did not wish to be, appointed to any corporate board of directors. Rather, he went back to work as an author and journalist.
His brand of nationalism was not xenophobic. I have always thought that he hoped, against all odds, that a significant number of nonfrancophones would vote “yes” to sovereignty-association in the 1980 referendum.
0 I vividly remember him
1 speaking in English for three hours in a Montreal
1 synagogue on a Friday night, stoically fighting his need to smoke, desperately trying to
2 convince his audience that an independent Quebec would be open and
Although he was a fervent nationalist, he was acutely aware of what extreme nationalism could lead to. He passionately hated, and ferociously fought, all those he suspected of flirting with extreme nationalism. He hated the radical Front de libération du Québec—the FLQ. He even hated his own party’s radicals.
In 1968, at the first convention of the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (which became the Parti Québécois six months later), Lévesque had to deal with a large group of delegates who called for the closing of English
schools. He threatened to resign if they got their way—and he won. When his government passed the Charter of the French Language in 1977, he left most of the job of drafting it to his cultural affairs minister, Camille Laurin. The job had to be done, he used to say, but he did not want to do it. He was suspicious of the romanticism with which many francophones greeted the charter, and he wanted anglophones coming to Quebec from other provinces to keep the right to send their children to English schools, but he finally gave in to Laurin’s passionate arguments.
On other issues he violently confronted his own party. He was angered in 1977 when delegates to a PQ convention voted for unrestricted abortion and for pulling out of NATO—policies that Lévesque feared would damage his government’s image. And he threatened to resign as party leader in 1981, when delegates to another convention, shocked by the constitutional accord that excluded Quebec, passed a resolution calling for pure independence without any form of association with the rest of Canada.
Stormy: Lévesque and the Péquistes had a stormy, love-hate relationship. He was the founding father, the beloved leader on whom all hopes and frustrations rested. He was much more impatient and authoritarian with his party than with voters at large, and much more sensitive to the wishes of the population than to those of the Péquistes. In that sense, he was always more at ease as premier than as party leader.
He was sometimes a driving force for change—in 1962 when, as a minister in Jean Lesage’s Liberal government, he called for nationalization of Quebec’s electricity companies, or in the 1970s, when he pushed for sovereignty-association. At other times, he acted as a moderating force: in 1970, during the October Crisis, and in 1980, when he gracefully accepted, without the slightest reservation, the verdict of the people on the referendum. He could be bold or cautious, but always attuned to the will of the majority. Through his own ambivalence, through his own hesitations on the national question, he embodied the complex and ambiguous aspirations of most Quebecers, who would like, as a humorist once put it, “a free Quebec in a united Canada.” It has been said that Pierre Trudeau represented what French-Canadians wanted to be, but that Lévesque represented what they were. That is why so many mourned when Lévesque died last week. What suddenly disappeared was a part of themselves.
Lysiane Gagnon is a political columnist for La Presse of Montreal.
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