In death, as in life, René Lévesque provoked powerful emotions. Reverent tributes from colleagues and dignitaries filled special sections of newspapers last week. His old political foes admitted a profound respect for Lévesque’s untempered idealism, although a grudging few chose not to forgive the old differences. But in the end, despite the pomp and pageantry of a state funeral, it was ordinary Quebecers—and the poignancy of the seemingly unending lines that queued for hours to bid a final farewell before his open casket —who underlined Lévesque’s special place in the life of the province he led—and the country he so deeply challenged.
In both Montreal and Quebec City, an estimated 100,000 people waited patiently—sometimes in a steady drizzle and in lines that snaked for several blocks—for a chance to pay a brief tribute to a patriot son. And when Lévesque’s casket was carried from the century-old grey stone building in Old Montreal that once served as the city’s courthouse, to be transported to Quebec City for the state
funeral, 10,000 onlookers broke into applause and sang, spontaneously, Gens du Pays, a song of affectionate greeting and Quebec’s unofficial nationalist anthem. Thousands more waited outside the Notre-Dame Basilica in Quebec City the next day during the celebration of the funeral mass as the strains of Mozart’s Requiem drifted out onto Buade Street. The emotional outpouring was a clear demonstration of the spell that Lévesque cast over Quebecers as a political—and in many ways, a spiritual— leader. Said Marise Fournier, 30, a musician who came to view Lévesque’s body in the marbled foyer of Montreal’s old courthouse: “For me, Lévesque was a Gandhi.”
Lévesque’s compelling personality, which endeared him as much to his political adversaries as to his supporters, ensured the almost unprecedented intensity of the affection. In Quebec, which he led as premier from 1976 to 1985, his death at age 65—from a massive heart attack—prompted an assessment of the province’s achievements over the past quarter-century. For
many of Quebec’s embattled indépendantistes, the death of the man who founded the Parti Québécois (PQ) was a time for reflection on past victories and defeats—and new hopes for a revival of nationalist spirit. But for most ordinary Quebecers, it was a time to acknowledge Lévesque’s less tangible contributions. Said Daniel Fontaine, 28, a corporal with the Canadian Armed Forces who lined up to pay his respects 1 in Montreal: “He put us on the map and made us proud to be Quebecers.”
The respect extended as well to English Canada, prompted by Lévesque’s pivotal role in many of the most important political events of the past two decades of Canadian history. Both major English television networks broadcast live coverage of the state funeral, the first time that had been done on the death of a provincial premier. On Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney ordered the Canadian flag to fly at half-staff, a remarkable tribute to a man who more than anyone else this century had challenged federalism with his government’s 1980 referendum
on independence. Said Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto: “En-
glish-Canadians realize that Lévesque is the first major figure in that generation of political titans to die.” Since stepping down as PQ leader in 1985, Lévesque had remained an active participant in public life as an author and radio commentator. But his health had always been a subject of speculation, largely because he chain-smoked cigarettes —usually Player’s Light — throughout his adult ^ life. That concern g heightened in 1985 durÍ ing Lévesque’s final ï months in office, when g his public behavior be5 came erratic —symptoms later attributed to fatigue. The concern was not misguided: an autopsy revealed that Lévesque, who often admitted to an irrational fear of doctors and hospitals, had previously suffered four mild heart attacks that had gone undetected.
But friends and associates insisted that Lévesque had looked fitter in his final weeks. Said former PQ cabinet minister Gilbert Paquette, who broke with Lévesque during the PQ’s cathartic shelving of its independence platform in January, 1985: “Those final months in government were very rough on him. But in the last few weeks he seemed to have found his serenity once more.”
That spirit was evident during Lévesque’s last public appearance. On Oct. 30, just two nights before he died, Lévesque made a short, jaunty appearance at a Montreal literary fund-raising dinner where he exchanged mock punches with former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, his greatest rival over the past quarter-century. “He looked well,” Trudeau told reporters last week. “He was telling me all the work he was doing with the media. I thought it was too much, but that was his life and he lived it fully to the end.”
Forty-eight hours later, at a small dinner party in his apartment on Montreal’s Nuns’ Island, Lévesque, who had reportedly been feeling poorly all day, suddenly grew ill. His guests tried to persuade him to go to the hospital. But Lévesque refused. At about 8 p.m., with just his wife, Corinne Côté-Lévesque, at home, Lévesque suffered his fatal attack and quickly slipped into uncon-
sciousness. Côté-Lévesque began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage, following the instructions of a nurse who stayed on the line after she had phoned an ambulance. When they arrived, ambulance technicians also tried for 45 minutes to revive him but failed. Lévesque was pronounced dead on arrival at Montreal General Hospital at 10:35 p.m.
A remarkable life was over. Lévesque’s high-octane career left a powerful imprint not only on Canadian politics but on French-language journalism as well. In the 1950s Lévesque became Quebec’s first television star as the host of Point de Mire, a current affairs program on Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French network. The show focused on international events, an interest Lé-
vesque had honed as a radio reporter covering the Second World War and the Korean War. “In a sense, Lévesque was always a journalist,” said Peter Desbarats, author of (René), a 1976 biography of Lévesque. “He once told me he saw politics as an extension of journalism.”
But it was not until he was politicized by the bitter 1959 strike by producers at Radio-Canada, which pitted them against the federal government, that Lévesque was drawn into active politics. Recruited into the Quebec Liberal party by Jean Lesage in time for
the Liberals’ 1960 election victory, Lévesque immediately distinguished himself from most politicians. “While other Liberal candidates spent all their time blasting the previous administration, Lévesque was always talking about the future of Quebec,” recalled Gérard Pelletier, one of Lévesque’s oldest friends. Pelletier, a supporter during the 1960 campaign who went on to become a Liberal cabinet minister in Ottawa, added, “I could see the worried faces of the Liberal stalwarts on the stage with him.”
Lévesque’s headstrong political style constantly tested the discipline of party politics. Instead, he relied on his already-high public profile to get his way. He used that leverage as a minister in Lesage’s cabinet to nationalize Quebec’s privately owned hydroelectric companies and to form Hydro-Québec, the now-massive provincial utility. Said former PQ house leader Claude Charron: “In the early 1960s he was a superstar. He spoke directly to the people and they could understand him, even on something as complicated as nationalizing electricity.”
But by 1967 Lévesque abandoned his attempt to push the reformist elements of the Liberal party into accepting his then still-undefined concept of “sovereignty-association.” Instead, he dramatically walked out of the Liberal party, taking with him a band of loyal followers that included Charron, a 21year-old student journalist at the time. The next year Lévesque moulded the Parti Québécois out of several disparate groups advocating an independent Quebec.
But Lévesque’s moderate approach to independence was constantly challenged by more radical members of the PQ, many of whom advocated harsh restrictions on Quebec’s minorities. Lévesque was able to persuade most PQ members to reject those positions, but sometimes only by threatening to resign as party leader. Said Paquette: “There was nobody else who could hold all the dislocated elements of the party together. He was its conscience.”
Still, under Lévesque’s leadership the party suffered two traumatic electoral defeats—in 1970 and in 1973. Only when Lévesque convinced the party to promise a referendum on sovereigntyassociation did the PQ win a majority government—in 1976. That government is now widely regarded as one of the most talented and creative ever elected
in Quebec. Over the next three years it passed landmark legislation providing for no-fault automobile insurance, an agricultural zoning act that preserved much of Quebec’s arable land for farming and a law prohibiting companies from hiring replacement workers while their employees are on strike. The PQ also reformed the way political parties are financed in Quebec by outlawing corporate donations and allowing only individuals to make political contributions to parties or candidates. Said Jean Crête, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City:
“The law virtually eliminated patronage and conflict of interest from provincial elections.”
But no law was more widely hailed in French Quebec, or more widely condemned in English Canada, than the PQ’s 1977 Charter of the French Language. Commonly known as Bill 101, the language law established the primacy of French in schools and business. Paradoxically, it demonstrated that Quebec could act to protect its language and culture within Canadian federalism, thereby undermining support for sovereignty-association. Noted Crête: “Bill 101 robbed the PQ of a lot of its arguments. They had nothing left to fight Ottawa with.”
Then, Lévesque suffered two crushing political blows. In May, 1980, Quebecers refused, by a margin of 3 to 2 in the referendum vote, to give the PQ government a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association with the rest of Canada. And in constitutional negotiations the following year, Lévesque was frozen out of a secret late-night deal between Trudeau and the nine English-speaking premiers to patriate the Constitution. As a result, Quebec refused to sign the 1982 Constitution Act—a gap that this year’s Meech Lake accord was designed to remedy.
Those losses also weakened Lévesque’s hold on his own party. Many of his more hard-line colleagues never accepted sovereignty-association as anything more than a device aimed at the eventual establishment of complete independence. Only by again threatening to resign and forcing an internal party referendum on his leadership was Lévesque able to persuade the PQ to abandon changes that would have made
independence possible upon a PQ election victory.
But the “Rénerendum,” as it was called, was the last time Lévesque was able to pressure the party into accept-
ing his will. Backroom manoeuvring against his leadership began as early as 1982 and grew as the PQ struggled through its second term in office. And when Lévesque agreed to take sovereignty out of the PQ’s election platform
in late 1984, the party was divided. Old colleagues such as Camille Laurin and Jacques Parizeau left the PQ, ostensibly over Lévesque’s softening on sovereignty—but also because it was clear that party power brokers surrounding Pierre Marc Johnson were succeeding in their push to unseat the leader. When Lévesque resigned in June, 1985, only the timing of his departure was a surprise.
In the wake of Lévésque’s death, Quebecers last week debated what impact the outpouring of feeling for him would have on the province. Many nationalists used the occasion to call for a renewed commitment to Quebec independence. Said Louise Harel, a PQ member of the legislature: “It is too early to say whether all the emotion is just nostalgia for the past or if it signals a rebirth of sovereignty. But it is certain that the debate on the independence option will start again.”
For now, that debate may be limited to the old warriors from Lévesque’s generation. Said Michel Vincent, 20, vice-president of the law students’ association at the University of Montreal: “Politics these days does not arouse emotions the way it did in Lévesque’s period. I don’t think you are going to see ever again the kind of political commitment that Lévesque inspired in young Quebecers 20 years ago.”
Indeed, last week, as Lévesque’s casket was drawn through the streets of Old Quebec, the crowd’s chant of “merci” was in recognition of past battles. And the gathering of politicians from across Canada at his funeral was an indication that many of the confrontations Lévesque inspired have since been settled. After being greeted warmly in Calgary while promoting his memoirs in 1986, Lévesque told onetime Liberal cabinet colleague Eric Kierans, “I am no longer a menace.” But if Lévesque had stopped making people angry, he had not been forgotten. The openly emotional reaction to his death from ordinary Quebecers and English Canadians alike was evidence of his lasting imprint on the country.
— BRUCE WALLACE in Quebec City with LISA VAN DUSEN and CINDY HOFFMAN in Montreal
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