The man in the middle of Quebec’s new deal
Without René Lévesque, many Quebeckers say, the Liberals would never have taken over the province. With him, according to the opposition and many members of his own party, the Liberals will never be able to run the province. And Lévesque? “Either French Canadians will no longer be second-class citizens in their own province, or there'll be a blowup"
QUEBEC IS CURRENTLY entering the first stages of an economic revolution, and René Lévesque, minister of natural resources in the Quebec government, is its spark plug. This appraisal is shared by enemies and supporters alike of the controversial and outspoken gadfly of the Liberal cabinet of Premier Jean Lesage. Lévesque is probably Quebec's bestknown. best-loved and worst-hated public figure.
The newleader of the Union Nationale. Daniel Johnson, has solemnly and repeatedly warned Lesage against "the crazy socialistic ideas" of Lévesque, and Gerard Pelletier, editor of Montreal's big daily, Lu Vres.se, told me, "He's the one man you can trust; he has sincerity and resourcefulness, and he won't miss the bus."
When in the summer of I960 Quebec's long-entrenched and welloiled but corrupt Union Nationale election machine finally crumpled under the onslaught of a rejuvenated Liberal party led by Jean Lesage, many people in that province, impressed by the Liberal party's progressive platform, looked for a new' deal for the long-suffering populace. Others were more cynical. Corruption in the form of payoffs, kickbacks, secret tenders, a provincial police that acted as the armed praetorian guard of the party in power was not new in Quebec. Historians have traced this kind of government back to the conquest, when the submission of the French populace was obtained by the British rulers through the systematic corruption of French leaders with the booty of political patronage. It flowered in the Liberal regime of Alexandre Taschereau, which ended in 1936, and after a brief wartime interlude under the honest Adelard Godbout, it touched impressive new heights during sixteen uninterrupted years of power wielded by the wily late Maurice Duplessis who, when accused of misdeeds by the Liberals, loved to retort that he was Taschcreau’s best pupil.
THE LESAGE REFORMS: A FRESH BREEZE IN A MUSTY HOUSE
The subsequent reforms introduced by Lesage swept like a fresh breeze through the province, amazing some, confounding others, and leaving a skeptical knot of unbelievers still convinced that it was too good to last. Hospital insurance was introduced and a new deal in education making it possible for students to attend school without fees all the way to Grade Twelve.
A quick settling of a long-standing feud that Duplessis had carried on with the federal government brought Quebec the benefits, already used by other provinces, of joint participation with the federal government in a road-building program. (Duplessis had steadfastly refused to allow federal scrutiny of the way money was spent on one of the most effective methods ever invented for plundering the province.) Open tenders for government contracts did away with the old method of handing out political favors with handsome kickbacks to the party treasury, and purchasing came under the rigid scrutiny of impartial auditors.
All this adds up simply to overdue reform, and if this were the limit of the Quebec revolution, nobody in St. James Street, Bay Street or Wall Street need lose a night’s sleep over it. CONTINUED ON PAGE 4Ü
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MAN IN THE MIDDLE
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Lévesque’s warning: “Empire building and company domination are through in Quebec”
But for René Lévesque and an impressive number of young French-Canadian intellectuals who share his views, the foregoing was simply a mild preliminary to the real struggle for economic emancipation on the part of the eighty-five percent of the Quebec population that owns less than ten percent of the province's wealth. "We’re at the same stage as the Cubans,” Lévesque says, “but we’ve already got shoes. Two pairs.” The struggle has already been joined, and the intellectuals believe its course will have important consequences for the rest of Canada as well as for Quebec.
René Lévesque told me: “Either we will have a planned program for promoting the French - Canadians economically, or there will be a blow-up. The French Canadians will no longer tolerate the status of second-class people in their own province. The days of empire building and big company domination in Quebec are over.
"Big companies are in here to exploit the resources, and this is right and proper. But they should never have control over the townships, the police, the politicians, the lives of the people. And their operations must be modified and conditioned by the welfare of the people in the province. The big economic decisions in the future must be made by the provincial government with this interest in mind, and of course with the co-operation of the interested parties. And it can be done, providing the ‘interests’ make an effort to advance from mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth-century.
"But if the aspirations of the people are thwarted, the situation can change rapidly. They are roused to demand their share in the country’s wealth. When I. for one, can rouse them further. 1 do.”
The man who offered this flat challenge to the economic overlords of Quebec is a thin wiry figure of thirty-nine, five and a half feet tall, with a broad-domed balding head, sharp gray-green eyes, a strong nose, thin humorous mouth and firm chin. He gives an impression of instant awareness. and candid intelligence.
When René Lévesque speaks for Quebec aspirations, he speaks for the most advanced and articulate section of that province’s lively middle class. Sharing his views in great part are people like Gerard Pelletier. editor of the powerful La Presse, André Laurendeau, editor of the smaller but influential Le Devoir, Jean-Louis Gagnon, editor of the aggressive new Le
Nouveau Journal, educator Father GeorgesHenri Levesque (no relation), labor leader Jean Marchand, influential writers like Jacques Hébert and Pierre Trudeau, Abbé O’Neill, coauthor of a trenchant treatise on political morality that helped dig the grave of the Union Nationale government, and Maurice Lamontagne, top FrenchCanadian economist and economic adviser to Liberal leader Lester Pearson.
Lévesque originally became widely known to the people of Quebec through television, first with Carrefour (Crossroads) back in 1954, and then with a succeeding program. Point de Mire (Focus). They were news feature programs in which Lévesque undertook to examine the background of current issues, both domestic and world-wide, and his lucidity and simplicity in dealing with these issues and making them clear to the simplest housewife or backwoods farmer made his face and name familiar across the province. His outspoken handling of ticklish issues roused the ire of the Duplessis government and made him at the same time one of the most reviled and respected figures in the province.
He made his first enemies with one of his initial programs, a three-part study of Russia in which he impartially listed the good and the bad of the Soviet regime as he found it. He was promptly labeled a communist, and over the succeeding years his enemies have done their best to make the tag stick. Lévesque shrugs off their persistent attacks. He says: “As long as certain people don’t like me that is my insurance. When they start praising me. 1 will start worrying about myself.”
While Lévesque is a favorite target of the Union Nationale (antichrist and communist are their favorite epithets for him) he is also an object of suspicion and worry for some members of his own party, who see in him the spearhead of a young and aggressive wing which aims at the total abolition of all the familiar disreputable practices of the past. Lévesque describes the situation candidly:
"The big problem is that the party, like every other party, has its people who believe in the program, and others who wish that the party would behave like its predecessor and dish out the gravy. These latter people, if they can’t be re-educated, have to be discouraged or die off. They are an older element who are cynical about poli-
tics generally: an attitude which they usually describe as ‘being realistic.’
“This education in political morality is an important part of our program, for if it is not absorbed, the program is useless. That is the toughest job of all.”
But political observers in Quebec question whether this is the toughest job that faces Levesque personally. They point out that the program of demanding a larger share of the economic wealth of the province for the French Canadians pits the Liberal party against the organized power of big business supported by banking and
investment capital. They note that Levesque is openly and militantly committed to this program. His leader. Jean Lesage, is an astute professional politician who stoutly defends the program and will undoubtedly attempt to carry it out to the point where it is confronted by serious organized opposition. Then, when he looks for support in his own cabinet, he can be sure only of Lévesque and Trade and Commerce Minister André Rousseau who. a small businessman himself, feels almost as keenly on the subject as Lévesque. And who else? On economic matters, so foreign to
French-Canadian political experience, Quebec politicians are at best unknown possibilities. Moreover, most of the cabinet members are just too busy with their own departments to have any real concern with the issue.
The bitter truth is that Lévesque may find himself almost isolated if a showdown comes within the cabinet. According to most observers the showdown is not far off. If they’re right. 'Lévesque will make sure his departure is noisy. “If the government doesn't stick to its program, if it becomes like previous governments,” he
warns, “then I’ll quit — and everyone will know why.”
As Minister of Natural Resources. Lévesque has made it perfectly clear that he thinks the government, for a start, should take over most of the electrical power resources of the province. HydroQuebec has already started buying out sections of private power companies, and under Lévesque no further concessions will be granted private industry in this field.
Lévesque told me: “The economic development of Quebec must be planned and decided by the government through a method whereby the people of the province can participate as shareholders and not just as employees.
“In a Société Générale, for instance, as recently announced by the premier, both public money and private money can be funded in an investment corporation to participate jointly in developments.”
Recently. 1 learned from another source, the Quebec government had decided to go ahead with building a smelter in precisely such a project. This decision had a curious effect. Sometime before, a major corporation had publicly announced that it was not interested in the project. As soon as the government decided that it was ready to form a Société Générale to build the smelter, the same corporation produced a competitive plan to build it with private funds. It is anticipated that the government project is in for stormy times when it ventures onto the money market for finances. As minister of natural resources. Lévesque wall likely be deeply involved in the coming battle.
This gadfly preparing to sting the flank of big business was born in New' Carlisle. Que., on August 24. 1922. the son of Dominique Lévesque, who w'as an early associate of Finest Lapointe and a devoted supporter of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. René was the first of four children: his brother Fernand is a journalist on the staff of La Presse, his brother André is a lawyer in Quebec City, and his sister. Alice, also in Quebec City, is married.
As a youngster René was noted for his tough independent character. At four he roamed around so much his father tried tethering him to a tree with a rope. When a passerby commiserated, the tot told him to mind his own business. Fernand tells of youthful fist-fights with his older but smaller brother, over politics and over Fernand’s habit of tagging after René.
René traces his first interest in politics to his father, who had retired to New Carlisle because of poor health but who. in compensation, possessed the biggest private library in town. René read the books hungrily. His father, a lifelong Liberal, grew disgusted with his party during the corrupt Taschereau regime of the thirties. When he was asked to speak on radio in the 1936 election to plead the Liberal cause, he agreed, and then spent fifteen valuable minutes of air time extolling the virtues of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had been dead fifteen years. He said nothing about the current campaign.
René started his radio career as a fourteen-year-old summer replacement with CHNC in New Carlisle where he was an announcer and wrote news bulletins. His interest in radio continued while he attended university in Quebec City (the family moved to Quebec City after Dominique Lévesque's death in 1938). René obtained his BA there and took two years of law at Laval before he gave this up to go overseas as a radio reporter during the war. There, in Alsace, after a series of bouts with laryngitis, he lost his normal voice and returned in 1946 with the hoarse raspy whisper that he was to make so well-known subsequently over the air in Quebec.
Back in Canada he spent five years in
the International Service of the CBC; later he did a stint as a CBC war correspondent in Korea. When television started he helped prepare the first CBC French-language news feature programs, and out of these came the popular Carrefour and Point de Mire. On the latter he spent about a hundred hours a week in research, documentation and on-the-spot coverage. His job took him all over Canada and to the newsmaking centres of the world.
His first trip to Russia was with the newspapermen covering the visit of Lester Pearson in 1955. Pearson was invited to visit Khrushchov at his summer home in Yalta, and though the press was invited along, only Lévesque and a Toronto newspaperman accepted the invitation. Levesque carted along a portable tape recorder. and when Pearson and Khrushchov held their first conversations the two reporters were permitted to stand at the door and look into the parlor where the meeting was held. Khrushchov spotted Levesque’s equipment, and called him over.
“Radio?” he asked.
Lévesque used his only Russian. "Da, da." he answered.
Khrushchov invited Lévesque to turn on his equipment, and Lévesque was delighted to oblige. Then Khrushchov launched into a violent attack on NATO, which
gave Pearson some difficulty in finding effective answers. Lévesque recorded the exchanges as they were translated. When he got back to Moscow with his exclusive recording, he allowed the English and French newspapermen there to listen to the exchange, and it made headlines in Paris and London. He shipped it air express back to Montreal, but when he got back to the CBC he found the recording gathering dust on a shelf. It had been decided that since Pearson had not fared well in the exchange, the recording would not be released. "My scoop wasn't good enough for Canada!” he lamented. (Parts of the recording were later broadcast.)
Point de Mire came to an abrupt end with the CBC producers’ strike in March of 1959 when Lévesque entered wholeheartedly into the strike on the side of the producers and proved, to the surprise of himself as well as the strikers, to be a very effective orator. I attended several mass meetings of the strikers, and I was struck with the dynamism of the lean intense gravel-voiced man on the platform. The strike was long and bitter and it took place in the middle of winter, involving people who had absolutely no experience of such actions. Yet they stuck it out till final victory and a most important factor in maintaining the morale of the strikers was the moving yet always well-reasoned speeches of René Lévesque. They usually ended each mass meeting and sent the strikers away determined to hang on.
CBC discontinued Point de Mire soon after the strike. It was then that Lévesque, approached by the Liberals to study their
new' platform for the forthcoming provincial election, decided that the platform was worth fighting for.
Although this would be his first experience on the hustings. Lévesque was no political tyro. Because of his raspy voice he had never been used in any of the commercial shows presented by CBC: instead he had been sent to cover political conventions and elections. Thus he covered the 1952. '56 and '58 conventions and elections in the United States, the 1953. '57 and ’58 Canadian federal elections, and the 1952. ’56 and '58 Quebec provincial
elections. Parties and programs were an old story to him, and. of them all. he liked the I960 Quebec Liberal platform best. "It was a good beginning,” he said later.
The 1960 election was fought with no holds barred, and Lévesque was a particular target of the Union Nationale. Not only did he have to contend with all the traditional ballot-stuffing, impersonation and telegraphing which is traditional in Quebec elections, but he was singled out for special attention by the Union Nationale leadership. Much of this backfired. A
vicious personal attack which was launched against him by means of a record circulated privately among the clergy, and recounting his alleged marital difficulties actually won a great number of scandalized priests to the Liberal cause in protest against this tactic. And when Premier Barrette threatened to set up a provincial government radio chain if Lévesque returned to the CBC after the election. Barrette antagonized many voters who had no great interest in either party but who admired Lévesque personally.
But probably the worst mistake made by
the Union Nationale was to persuade Claude-Henri Grignon to take the air against Lévesque. The latter had made a bitter personal enemy of Grignon during the CBC strike when Grignon, author of a celebrated French-language soap opera on radio and television, which is built around a miser called Seraphim, headed up a movement among the actors and authors to return to work before the other unions in the strike had come to terms. Lévesque had suggested that Grignon resembled the leading character in his own soap opera. But when Grignon took the air against Lévesque to wind up the Union Nationale campaign, he spent fifteen minutes in a diatribe against Lévesque as the antichrist, and sent Liberal organizers scrambling for giant-view television sets to spread a performance which, in Lévesquc’s words, “Beat anything we could offer as a speech in our favor.”
Strong-arm tactics are also commonplace in Quebec elections. One day, about two weeks before the election, a burly man walked into Lévesque’s headquarters in the Laurier district of Montreal, a northeastern section of the city with a large Italian population. He was Johnny Rougeau, wrestler by profession, and a local hero. He told Lévesque: “You’re an honest guy. but you’re going to need some help or you’re going to get hurt. Let me know when you need me.”
As the tension increased, Lévesque went everywhere with the broad-shouldered wrestler by his side. Nobody bothered him. On election day, however, Lévesque learned that a gang of goons was terrorizing the voters in the polling booths around Danté Street, and that the police were reluctant to intervene. He got into a car with Rougeau and drove into Danté Street, where he was immediately surrounded by a mob of more than fifty roughnecks who promised to tear both of them limb from limb if they stepped out of the car. Deliberately Lévesque and Rougeau climbed out of the car, and Rougeau begged for the first offering in the cause of political partisanship. During all the milling and pushing the police suddenly arrived with
a squad of paddy wagons; more than fifty members of the goon squad spent the rest of the day in the cells. Since Lévesque won the election by the narrow margin of 129 votes (increased to 179 in a subsequent recount) he likes to think that the foray at two o’clock in the afternoon played a major part in spiking the guns of Union Nationale telegraphers.
immediately after the election Lesage appointed Lévesque minister of public works and minister of hydraulic resources. Lévesque lost no time in applying the Liberal promise to eliminate graft and payoffs. Within nine months he was able to show a saving of four million dollars, mainly by starting open-tender bidding and renegotiating contracts which had been let by the previous government through “letters of intent.” He also eliminated such quaint discrepancies as a squad of “bridgewatchers” who had drawn some $60,000 in salary for making sure that the communists didn’t blow up the Three Rivers bridge, as Duplessis had insisted was their fixed intention. He dismissed a waterworks commission which had been appointed by Duplessis in 1948 to study water pollution, had spent $312.000. but had never brought in a report.
Then, when the department of natural resources was formed this spring, Lévesque was appointed minister to head it up. The Montreal Star observed: “This will probably give sleepless nights to those who are astonished at Mr. Lévesque’s cheerful admission of leftist leanings, yet his previous record is a good testimonial to his ability and dedication.”
Heading up the new department. Lévesque speedily learned that there wasn’t one economist on staff to deal with the value of company leases and concessions that came up for renewal. (He contends, however, that in other respects the former department of mines and department of hydraulic resources contained the best technical staffs in the country.) He speedily rectified this omission and today company briefs prepared by experts are subjected to scrutiny by other equally competent experts. The rates of many leases and con-
cessions have been advanced in the last six months.
At the same time, in his constituency of Laurier. Lévesque has eagerly adopted the Liberal program of reform aimed at eliminating some of the worst abuses in the Quebec election system. One of these is the arrangement of constituencies by which seven urban votes equal one rural vote. Another is the practice of submitting the names of fake candidates with the same name and initials as rival party candidates. There were two René Lévesques listed on the ballots in Laurier in 1960. Election expenditures will also come under strict control if Lévesque’s Laurier resolution. to be presented to the Quebec Liberal Party convention in November, is adopted.
René Lévesque has lost his raspy voice; it's now a pleasant baritone. He told me that his voice suddenly started to come back to him in the midst of the election campaign, after he had delivered three speeches in one night.
“All that shouting,” he explained, “was just like an operation. That’s what medical friends of mine have told me. They also tell me that it shouldn't have happened without them! So 1 don't consult them any more—in case they find something terribly wrong about such an inexpensive cure.”
Lévesque puts in backbreaking days at his work. On Mondays he is usually at Hydro-Quebec in Montreal, where officials still haven't gotten over the shock of finding him on his first visit quietly having a cup of coffee in the employees’ cafeteria. Tuesday to Friday he spends at his office in Quebec or in the House when Parliament is in session. He usually stays at the modest Clarendon Hotel in Quebec: "There I miss the lobbyists who always check in at the Chateau Frontenac.” He leaves Quebec City Friday night to be in his office in the Laurier constituency early Saturday morning, where he stays all day listening to constituents with grievances, problems and advice.
He is sure of spending only Sunday with his wife and three children. Pierre, thirteen. Claude, eleven, and Suzanne, five. Pierre already wears shoes a half-size larger than his father's, to René’s discomfiture. René tries to take his family on trips out of Montreal: in winter he skis with them and in summer he tries to spend his vacation with them near salt water, an old love for a man born on the Gaspé coast.
His mother intrigues him. “She is a young, mysterious sixty.” he told me. “Nobody knows her exact age.”
After his father’s death, his mother decided to study the culinary arts more thoroughly, so she enrolled in a course at university. After a year she decided she was learning nothing new there. She went to Paris for more intensive instruction, then decided to learn Italian, and spent a year in Florence and Bologna. When René became involved in the controversy over his reporting on Russia, she decided to go to the USSR to find out for herself. She came away after two weeks convinced that her son had been scandalously maligned but. a good Catholic, she made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem afterward to make sure she hadn't been contaminated by the Reds.
She lives now in Quebec City where she is currently working on the translation of a long article on investment corporations which she thinks may be helpful to René.
René Lévesque needs all the help he can get. Jean Marchand, head of the Confederation of Catholic Workers, told me: "He is strong, honest, bright, but he has a terrible ¡ob: I wonder if he can pull it off?
"I have faith in Lévesque. He meant the difference between victory and defeat for the Liberals. But if his experience is bad. what will happen afterward?”