One of the first Canadian Politics books I read was ‘Memoirs’ by René Lévesque. I was probably in grade eight and found the dusty book in a forgotten corner of my school library. I remember the cover – M. Lévesque standing there staring directly at you with a cigarette hanging casually in his right hand. I had to know more about this man.
He was born in 1922 in Campbellton, New Brunswick and raised in New Carlisle, Quebec. M. Lévesque studied for a law degree at Laval University in Québec City but left to pursue a career as a news writer and announcer. A liaison officer and European war correspondent for the American armed forces in WWII, Lévesque joined Radio-Canada International (the French-language counterpart of the CBC) in 1946 and became head of the radio-television news service in 1952. From 1956 he hosted the TV series “Point de Mire” and became one of Québec’s most influential TV commentators.
He entered politics in 1960 and was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Québec in the Québec Liberal government of Jean Lesage. He quickly became a leading force in Québec’s Quiet Revolution and was instrumental in the nationalization of Quebec’s private hydro-electric companies by 1964. This development allowed Hydro-Québec, which employs thousands of highly skilled French-speaking Quebeçois, to become North America’s largest and most successful producer and distributor of electricity.
The Liberals lost the 1966 election to the Union Nationale but Lévesque retained his own seat. In 1967 he left the Liberal party after its members refused to discuss the idea of a sovereign Québec and founded the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association, which later merged with another sovereigntist party to form the Parti Québecois (PQ) in 1968. He was the leader of the Parti Québecois party until he retired in 1985.
In 1976 the PQ won 71 out of 110 seats and 41.1% of the popular vote. René Lévesque became the Premier of Québec ten days later.
His government was responsible for the Act to govern the financing of political parties which banned corporate donations and limited individual contributions to political parties to $3000, meant to prevent wealthy individuals and organizations from having a disproportionate influence on the electoral process. His PQ also passed the Quebec Charter on the French Language. The objective of the Charter was (and still is) to make French “the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.” In its first enactment, it reserved access to English-language public schools to children whose parents had attended English school in Quebec. All other children were required to attend French schools in order to encourage immigrants to integrate themselves into the majority French culture. It also made it illegal for businesses to put up exterior commercial signs in a language other than French at a time when English dominated as a commercial and business language in Quebec, while more than 80% of the population was of French origin.
On May 20, 1980, the PQ held the 1980 Quebec referendum on its sovereignty-association plan. The result of the vote was 40% in favour and 60% opposed (with 86% turnout). Lévesque conceded defeat in the referendum, but his concession speech called upon sovereigntists to persevere “À la prochaine fois!” (“Until next time!”).
M. Lévesque led the PQ in the 1981 elections to 49% of the popular vote. In 1985 he resigned as leader of the PQ and Premier of Québec over a split within the party over how prominent the issue of sovereignty should be in the next election platform. He thought it should not play so important a role which angered the strongest supporters of sovereignty in the party.
Lévesque was a constant smoker and died of a heart attack in 1987. Of the things he left as his legacy, some of the most memorable are completing the nationalization of hydroelectricity through Hydro-Québec, the Quebec Charter of the French Language, the political party financing law, and the Parti Québécois itself. His government was the first in Canada to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the province’s Charte des droits de la personne in 1977.
Two major boulevards bear his name: one in Montréal and one in Québec City.
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