In the irreverent slang of Quebec’s French-speaking streets, he was called Tit-Poil—“Little Baldy.” It is not the kind of name that normally summons heroic images but, for most of those who habitually used the sobriquet, René Lévesque was always more than a hero.
Although he was widely respected for the depth of his conviction and the breadth of his accomplishment, it was the genuine affection of the crowd that set him apart from his contemporaries. The great mass of ordinary Quebecers did not merely admire the pint-sized figure with the shiny pate; they actually liked the man. “Over the years, he managed to create a marvellous personal bond between himself and his people,” recalls Louis Bernard, a longtime political collaborator. “It may well have been his most endearing quality.”
It was certainly his most enduring. For Lévesque’s fabled common touch not only reflected a personal interest in the welfare of the so-called little man, it also inspired the legacy that he bequeathed Quebecers after his sudden death in 1987, at 65. “He restored our pride and our self-confidence,” says Parti Québécois VicePresident Bernard Landry, a key cabinet minister under Lévesque. It is that pride and selfconfidence that underlie the current separatist drive in the province. And while Quebecers rejected the sovereignty option in a 1980 referendum, they are again preparing to vote on their future—evidence that Lévesque’s dream lives on, and continues to exacerbate tensions between French and English Canada.
Politics aside, it is Lévesque’s man-of-thepeople persona that Quebecers remember and that runs through all of his many vocations, linking the otherwise disjointed, sometimes contradictory chapters in his life. He first made his mark as a war correspondent with a foot soldier’s view of conflicts in Europe and Korea. He rose to prominence as a TV commentator
who brought the world outside Quebec into living rooms across the province. The resulting fame helped to launch his political career, which fell into two distinct episodes—one federalist, the other separatist, but both rooted in a respect for the individual Quebecer.
As a cabinet minister and later as premier, Lévesque abolished political patronage, established an effective civil service, extended real political power to French-speakers and women, broke the English-speaking business elite’s stranglehold on the province’s economy and, not least, eliminated the political violence of the FLQ crisis by channelling nationalist energies into legitimate parliamentary action. Those, and other measures, were all steps that, according to Laval University political scientist Léon Dion, helped to “modernize and democra-
tize Quebec.” Said Dion: “Nobody owned him—not business, not labor, not the indépendantistes, not even the political party he founded. The people knew that. It’s why they loved him.”
Not everyone loved Lévesque, of course. He was, after all, the man who in 1968 almost singlehandedly created the separatist PQ, an accomplishment that won few admirers outside of Quebec’s nationalists. He led his p'equistes to successive provincial election victories in 1976 and 1981. Those two governments were the first ever in Quebec expressly dedicated to sovereignty-association. It was a development that strained Canadian affairs, particularly as the negotiations to repatriate the Constitution moved to a successful conclusion in 1981. “He was brilliant, charming and imagi-
0 native,” recalls former Alberg ta premier Peter Lougheed,
1 who faced Lévesque during I those talks. “But the problem g for me, very frankly, was the u ever-present knowledge that
I was dealing with someone who wanted to tear my country apart.”
It took Lévesque some time to arrive at that position. A native of New Carlisle, then a predominantly English-speaking village in the Gaspé, he was supposed to follow in the steps of his lawyer father. But, an indifferent student, he dropped out of Laval University’s law school after 2}h years of study. The year was 1943, war was raging in Europe and Lévesque decided to take a firsthand look. He wangled a job with the French-language service of the United States Office of War Information, which put him in a U.S. army uniform and shipped him overseas as a radio correspondent.
The war took Lévesque to battle-scarred London, through the Rhine Offensive and the liberation of Dachau. It kindled within him an abhorrence of violence. It also gave him his trademark raspy voice—the result of untreated laryngitis. After returning to Montreal in
late 1945, he joined Radio-Canada, the Frenchlanguage arm of the CBC. For the next dozen years, while such contemporaries as Pierre Trudeau and Gérard Pelletier struggled against the heavy hand of Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale government, Lévesque’s concerns were international.
He covered the Korean War for Radio-Canada, where his reports from the foxholes earned wide praise, and later won immense celebrity as the creator and host of Point de Mire, or On Target, a weekly TV review of international affairs. Rarely did he show interest in the gathering nationalist storm at home. “We were all fighting Duplessis like mad,” remembers Pelletier, “but René was fighting to influence Canadian foreign policy.”
All that changed late in 1958, when RadioCanada went on strike. The work action grew into a symbol of resurgent French-Canadian nationalism. It galvanized Quebec’s intellectual class, transforming Lévesque from a nationalist bystander into an ardent participant. His leading role in the strike led to an invitation from Jean Lesage to run as a candidate for the provincial Liberal party. In 1960, Lesage’s Liberals overturned the Union Nationale, and Lévesque, who had won the Montreal/Laurier riding by 129 votes, entered the cabinet of the government that would launch what became known as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.
That movement derived much of its force from the policies that Lévesque initiated—in particular, the ruthless elimination of pork-barrel patronage
and the nationalization of the province’s electrical companies to form Hydro Quebec. “Lesage owned the quiet part of the Quiet Revolution, but the revolutionary part belonged to Lévesque,” said Bernard, who went on to serve as a key backroom architect of the two even more revolutionary governments that Lévesque eventually led.
Lévesque formed the Parti Québécois in 1968, after leaving the provincial Liberals the previous year when they refused to endorse his call for a sovereign Quebec. Explained Landry: “He came to the conclusion that a federation was not the best way to organize relations between French and English Canada because it would only lead to never-ending conflict.” Whatever the justification, it was an action that history will surely note.
History’s judgment on what Lévesque did with that power is another matter. The record of his two pequiste governments is certainly mixed. It was his cabinet that gave Quebec Bill 101, a widely criticized language law. At the same time, however, the very creation of the PQ gave the independence movement a legal channel to express its grievances, culminating in the 1980 referendum. As well, Lévesque, despite his own bitter disappointment, did not hesitate to accept the results of the 1980 vote. It was a popular verdict, after all. And in that regard, Lévesque never deviated. He listened to the voice of his people.
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