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René Levesque rocks Quebec…and Canada

The evening of Monday, November 15, 1976 was a turning point for my home province, my country and myself. Within hours of the polls closing, it was apparent that a seismic shift had occurred in Quebec politics with the first-time election of the separatist Parti Québecois, led by charismatic former journalist René Levesque.

For most political observers, the PQ victory was both unforeseen and shocking. In the first two elections it contested in 1970 and 1973, the recently formed PQ garnered only 23.5 and 30.8 percent, respectively, of the popular vote which gave them seven seats in 1970 and six seats in 1973. Its leader, Levesque, failed to win his seat in either 1970 or 1973.

But a groundswell of public dissatisfaction with perceived Liberal government corruption helped Levesque lead the PQ to a sweeping victory in 1976, with 41 percent of the popular vote, winning 71 out of the 110 seats in the Quebec National Assembly.

I was in "The Montreal Star" newsroom plying my trade as a rewrite man attached to the City Desk when the election night buzz started. Upon realizing that the Parti Quebecois had won the election, Managing Editor Ray Heard made a beeline for me, demanding to know whether I still had a profile on Levesque which I had written the week before for "The Toronto Star" — to be published following the election in case the PQ won.

I replied that I had sold the story in question to "The Toronto Star", meaning "The Montreal Star" could not run the same story. I reminded Ray that I had told him several weeks earlier that I was working on a story for "The Toronto Star" — Canada’s largest newspaper — and I had suggested that he commission me to write a separate Levesque profile for The Montreal Star. Ray had declined my offer at that time, believing — like most pundits — that the PQ had virtually no chance of winning.

The upshot was that "The Toronto Star" ended up running my extensive profile on Levesque the following day — Tuesday, November 16, 1976 — while "The Montreal Star" was forced to scramble at the last minute to put together a less elaborate profile on Levesque.

Perhaps hard-working freelance journalists can relate to my state of mind that November night in 1976. Here I was a young, but veteran editor and rewrite man at The Montreal Star looking to break into reporting under my own byline, but consistently passed over by "The Montreal Star" for reporting posts because senior management liked the job I was doing on City Desk.

On a hunch, I had phoned "The Toronto Star" about a month before the election and had convinced one of their editors to hire me on a freelance basis to write a profile on Levesque in case the PQ should pull off an upset election win.

I had hitched my star to the political meteorite known as René Levesque. My profile of him, which appeared under my byline in "The Toronto Star," elicited favorable attention from my media colleagues. Within a few months, T"he Montreal Star" had acceded to my request for a transfer to reporting duties covering the labour beat. I have always believed that November 15, 1976 was a turning point for Quebec, Canada and my career as a journalist.

THE TORONTO STAR, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 1976 - B*3

Levesque's opponents called him 'Lenin without a beard'

PHOTO:CPChainsmoking and craggyfaced, Levesque had a series of "illuminating experiences" that made him a firm opponent of Canadian federalism.

Those who know René Levesque describe the new premier of Quebec as an intense man of unquestioned integrity whose moods vary between the rationality of an armchair philosopher and the passion of a man with a sacred mission.

Throughout the changes in his political fortunes, that mission has remained constant: To end what Levesque terms the "Rhodesian situation" that exists in areas of Quebec where he feels the English-speaking minority neglects the language and economic aspirations of the French-speaking majority with unconscious arrogance.

"God knows we don't want to ram it down your throats, but you are a minority in Quebec," Levesque recently told a group of English-speaking businessmen.

While acknowledging that the prospect of sovereignty for Quebec is a "wrenching thought" for some. Levesque has promised that English-speaking Quebeckers would be treated as "full citizens" in an independent Quebec with language rights, such as English-language schools, entrenched in a constitution.

As far back as the early 1960s when be served as the Liberal natural resources minister who masterminded the nationalization of Quebec’s hydroelectric utilities, Levesque's brand of nationalism prompted opposition parties to label him a "Lenin without a beard."

A magnet

Author Gerard Bergeron calls him "the polarizer and integrating magnet for the people of Quebec," a man whose personality combines idealism with pragmatism.

The personality of the chain-smoking. craggy-faced premier exemplifies the contradictions of the Quebecois struggle for liberty, says psychiatrist and Parti Quebecois activist Camille Laurin.

"That is why he oscillates between the light and the dark, impatience and confidence, tenderness and severity," Laurin says. "Levesque is a symbol of contradiction and an object of recognition, hatred and love."

His concept of separatism has remained basically unchanged since September, 1967, when he issued a manifesto proposing that Confederation be replaced by a Canadian union, with Quebec exercising sovereign political powers while retaining some type of economic arrangement with the rest of Canada along the line of the European Common Market.

He has Insisted, over the objection of party radicals, that an independent Quebec should maintain friendly and beneficial relations with Canada and should protect the rights of its English minority. He has threatened to resign over the issue of minority rights.

Using his considerable charm and Intellect, Levesque has mollified the radicals by telling them the only way to win independence Is to portray the image of "an old party" rather than a radical one.

At a meeting of the party executive in October, 1975, Levesque convinced delegates to adopt a party platform calling for a referendum on the independence issue after a PQ government comes to power.

Two-step approach

He described the manoeuvre as a "two-step" approach to independence, and accurately predicted it would help defuse separatism as an Issue in the election.

Levesque's short stature, gravelly voice and unpretentious belie the magnetism and power of the man.

"When he Is acclaimed by a crowd, they do not cheer an idol, but a man of flesh and blood to whom they can communicate their faith in the future," says Jerome Proulx, a former Union Nationale member in Quebec's national assembly.

Levesque had the makings of a model Canadian, not a separatist leader, in the railway town of New Carlisle where he was born Aug. 24, 1922.

Life in the disadvantaged Gaspé area was pleasant for René. the eldest of four children born to Dominique Levesque, a lawyer and Liberal in the tradition of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

"II was a wonderful childhood, full of memories of the Bay of Chaleur on one side and the Gaspé forest on the other," be recalls. "And part of it was learning English without even noticing it."

Living in New Carlisle with its high percentage of English-speaking residents, most of them descendants of United Empire Loyalists and British immigrants, Levesque learned to speak a near-flawless English.

Although he says he felt no resentment towards the English-speaking residents of the town, he remembers that they "treated the French-Canadians the same way that the white Rhodesians treat their blacks.

"They don't do them any deliberate harm, but they have all the money and, therefore, the the nice homes and the good schools."

He recalls the running battles between gangs of French-Canadian and English-Canadian kids.

His boyhood in the Gaspé area gave René Levesque early experience of cultural conflict. He recalls street fights between French- and English-speaking kids. He viewed it as “just part of growing up.”

'Pea soups'

"They called us pea soups and for some unknown reason we called them crawfish. It was all very colorful. It seemed quite natural, just part of growing up."

His childhood passions were reading and strolling along the Gaspé beach.

Early in life Levesque developed a strong spirit of personal independence. He began to work during school vacations as radio announcer and reporter, even before losing, at age 14, his much-loved father, whose health had been weakened by influenza.

Described by a former teacher as a charming and gifted student, Levesque also had a reputation for fist fights, although he never was to top 5 feet 6 inches,

"I was mostly either reading or being obnoxious," he recalls in typically ironic fashion. "For a lightweight. I was usually in there."

He spent part of his teens at a Jesuit seminary in the town of Gaspé, 115 miles from home, where he received a classic education in foreign languages, history and philosophy.

While at the seminary, he read literature published by French-Canadian nationalists its Montreal calling for withdrawal from Confederation.

"I began discovering there was such a thing as French Canada and I began to learn about its problems. It was quite a shock for a boy from New Carlisle."

At ago 16, he published an article expounding his philosophy of life and social justice — one that remained constant during the years.

It read in part:

"The victor cannot lord it over his defeated rival and crush him underfoot….Only moderation will win other people's approval and make them applaud a brilliant victory….Do not forget that you are French Canadian, that your people have been mired in lassitude for generations and that if the masses do not act, this nation — your nation — is lost."

After the death of his father. Levesque moved with his family to Quebec City, where he continued part-time radio work while obtaining his bachelor of arts degree and taking two years of law at Laval University.

"But I had the journalist bug," says the man who interrupted his law studies to serve in the last two years of World War II as a correspondent with the American Broadcasting Corp. in Europe.

As a war correspondent with the Allied troops. Levesque entered Dachau concentration camp near Munich, where he saw corpses and burned remains.

"It was heart rending," he recalls, "There was no words to describe the horror of it."

In 1946, he joined the international service of Radio Canada, the French-language arm of the CBC covering major events such as the Korean war, royal visits, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, U.S. and Canadian elections, and sessions of the United Nations.

He says he was the first western journalist to interview former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev after Khrushchev came to power in the 1950s.

His radio reports on the Korean conflict won him widespread recognition and plaudits. He was considered among the best of Quebec journalists.

His reporting style was described by some listeners as "candid and humane, nervous and incisive."

One of the "illuminating experiences" that led him to doubt the value of Confederation to French-Canadians was a two-month strike in 1959 by French-language producers at the CBC.

The government refused to intervene to end the dispute, heading Levesque to postulate that "if the English network had shut down in Toronto, it wouldn't have taken the government and Parliament more than 24 hours to set things straight. "

“There were other experiences, but what's the use?" Levesque said in an interview several years ago. “Collectively, French-Canadians and Quebec in many ways have received the neck of the chicken so often that the truth is there.

As a reporter I crossed this country 20 times, often visiting French minorities and seeing things going down the drain slowly, but surely.

"Meanwhile, a lot of guys were yapping about this biculturalism and bilingualism — though they did not call it that at the time — this con job that (Prime Minister Pierre) Trudeau and guys like him have been trying to pull off, which will never take. This is something I saw for 20 years, practically failing everywhere, so why the hell should we not concentrate on Quebec?"

He decided to enter politics in 1959 following the death of Maurice Duplessis, the dictatorial Union Nationale premier.

"It was well enough to bawl about the Duplessis regime, but it was necessary to do something," Levesque recalls. "In any case, following politics as a journalist frustrated me. I was up to my neck in Canadian, American and Quebec political conventions."

He became the No. 2 man in the Liberal government of Jean Lesage which came to power in a close election in 1960.

Following the nationalization of the hydro utilities, the Lesage team won a smashing electoral victory in 1962 using the slogan, maintenant ou jamais: maitres chez nous - now or never: masters in our own house.

'Bad bargain'

After a stint as minister of public works and hydraulic resources in 1960-61, Levesque served as minister of natural resources in 1961-65.

By 1963, his attacks against Canadian federalism were becoming more frequent.

He told the Financial Post he thought Canada should be a union of two nations rather than I0 provinces. He said in an Interview with The Toronto Star that he left a native reserve every time he left Quebec.

"Confederation isn't sacred," he told The Star. "It has become a bad bargain. Sometimes the only thing you can do with a bad bargain is to get out of lit. And that can be done democratically.”

Levesque was minister of family affairs and racial security in 1966 when the Union Nationale scored a stunning upset under Daniel Johnson and returned to power.

Even as part of the official opposition party, Levesque hit hardest at his own leader, Lesage for his constitutional stand calling for "special status " for Quebec within confederation.

It prompted him to issue his now famous manifesto on separatism in 1967. Shortly after, the Quebec Liberal party denounced the concept of separatism "in all its forms" and forced Levesque and his small band of followers to resign.

Levesque promptly formed the Sovereignty Association Movement — forerunner of the Parti Quebecois— whose separatist platform he described as the "logical maturing" of the "masters in our own house" idea.

'Moral victory'

In mid-October. 1968, the new party merged with rural-based leftists and nationalist parties to form the Parti Quebecois.

In its first election battle in April,1970, the PQ garnered 23 per cent of the popular vote, second to the victorious Liberals under Robert Bourassa, who had succeeded Lesage.

Levesque described it as a moral victory, although only seven PQ candidates won election to the 108- seat national assembly and Levesque himself lost to liberal Andre Marchand in the Montreal riding of Laurier that he had held since 1960.

After his personal defeat , he talked of possible retirement from politics with his wife and three children and returned to journalism as a political columnist with the tabloids Journal de Montreal and Journal de Quebec.

However, he remained party leader and ran in the Montreal riding of Dorion — a Liberal stronghold — when the next provincial election was called for Oct. 29, 1973.

Levesque was optimistic that his party had an "awfully good chance" of winning that election despite the smooth Liberal campaign led by Bourassa, who warned voters that a separatist government would mean economic doom for the province and especially for its English-speaking inhabitants.

The result was a smashing victory which saw the Liberals take 102 of 110 seats in the enlarged national assembly.

Although the PQ won 30 per cent of the popular vote, it look only six seats in the legislature and Levesque wool down to personal defeat again, this time at the hands of Alfred Bosse.

But Levesque changed strategy for the latest election by taking the offensive and attacking the government's integrity and credibility, instead of being defensive about the PQ separatism platform.

He all but ignored the separatism issue, telling voters that "the real issue is to get rid of a rotten government before everybody has to wear a gas mask."

He reassured the electorate that the first objective of a PQ government would be to "repair some of the damages and injustices” created by the Bourassa regime.

Only after that work was begun would they use a referendum to settle the issue of whether Quebec should separate.