René Lévesque

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René Lévesque

Rene Levesque BAnQ P243S1D865.jpg
23rd Premier of Quebec
In office
November 25, 1976 October 3, 1985
Monarch Elizabeth II
Lieutenant Governor Hugues Lapointe
Jean-Pierre Côté
Gilles Lamontagne
Preceded by Robert Bourassa
Succeeded by Pierre-Marc Johnson
Leader of the Parti Québécois
In office
October 14, 1968 September 29, 1985
Preceded bynone
Succeeded by Pierre-Marc Johnson
Member of the
National Assembly of Québec
In office
June 22, 1960 April 29, 1970
Preceded byArsène Gagné
Succeeded by André Marchand
Constituency Montréal-Laurier (1960–66)
Laurier (1966–70)
In office
November 15, 1976 December 2, 1985
Preceded byGuy Leduc
Succeeded byClaude Filion
Constituency Taillon
Personal details
Born(1922-08-24)August 24, 1922
Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada
DiedNovember 1, 1987(1987-11-01) (aged 65)
Nuns' Island, Quebec
Cause of death Heart attack
Nationality Canadian
Political party Parti Québécois (after 1968)
Independent (1967–1968)
Liberal (1960–1967)
Spouse(s)Louise L'Heureux 1947–1977 (1921-2012)
Corinne Côté 1979–1987 (1943-2005)
Profession Journalist
Military service
AllegianceFlag of the United States.svg United States of America
Branch/serviceFlag of the United States Army (official proportions).svg  United States Army
Years of service1944–45
Rank Liaison officer
Battles/wars World War II

René Lévesque [1] GOQ (Quebec French pronunciation: [ʁœne leˈvaɪ̯k] ( Loudspeaker.svg listen ); August 24, 1922 – November 1, 1987) was a reporter, a minister of the government of Quebec (1960–1966), the founder of the Parti Québécois political party and the 23rd Premier of Quebec (November 25, 1976 – October 3, 1985). He was the first Quebec political leader since Confederation to attempt, through a referendum, to negotiate the political independence of Quebec.

The National Order of Quebec, termed officially in French as l'Ordre national du Québec, and in English abbreviation as the Order of Quebec, is a civilian honour for merit in the Canadian province of Quebec. Instituted in 1984 when Lieutenant Governor Jean-Pierre Côté granted Royal Assent to the Loi sur l'Ordre national du Québec, the order is administered by the Governor-in-Council and is intended to honour current or former Quebec residents for conspicuous achievements in any field, being thus described as the highest honour in Quebec.

The Government of Quebec refers to the provincial government of the province of Quebec. Its powers and structure are set out in the Constitution Act, 1867.

Parti Québécois Sovereignist political party in Quebec, Canada

The Parti Québécois is a sovereignist and social democratic provincial political party in Quebec, Canada. The PQ advocates national sovereignty for Quebec involving independence of the province of Quebec from Canada and establishing a sovereign state. The PQ has also promoted the possibility of maintaining a loose political and economic sovereignty-association between Quebec and Canada. The party traditionally has support from the labour movement, but unlike most other social democratic parties, its ties with organized labour are informal. Members and supporters of the PQ are called "péquistes", a French word derived from the pronunciation of the party's initials.


Early life

Lévesque was born in the Hôtel Dieu Hospital in Campbellton, New Brunswick on August 24, 1922, and raised 133 km away in New Carlisle, Quebec, on the Gaspé peninsula, by his parents, Diane (née Dionne) and Dominic Lévesque, a lawyer. [2] He had three siblings, André, Fernand and Alice.[ citation needed ] His father died when Lévesque was 14 years old. [3]

Campbellton, New Brunswick City in New Brunswick, Canada

Campbellton is a city with a population of 6,883 (2016) in Restigouche County, New Brunswick, Canada.

New Carlisle, Quebec Municipality in Quebec, Canada

New Carlisle, Quebec is a town in the Gaspésie–Îles-de-la-Madeleine region of Quebec, Canada, best known as the boyhood home of René Lévesque; although he was born at Campbellton, New Brunswick. The population is approximately 1,388, half English-speaking and half French-speaking. New Carlisle is located on the Baie des Chaleurs.

Gaspé Peninsula Region in Quebec, Canada

The Gaspésie, or Gaspé Peninsula, the Gaspé or Gaspesia, is a peninsula along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River to the east of the Matapedia Valley in Quebec, Canada, that extends into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. It is separated from New Brunswick on its southern side by the Baie des Chaleurs and the Restigouche River. The name Gaspé comes from the Mi'kmaq word gespe'g, meaning "end", referring to the end of the land.


During World War II with the U.S. Office of War Information Rene Levesque WW2.jpg
During World War II with the U.S. Office of War Information

Lévesque attended the Séminaire de Gaspé and the Saint-Charles-Garnier College in Quebec City, both of which were run by the Jesuits. He studied for a law degree at Université Laval in Quebec City, but left the university in 1943 without having completed the degree. [4] He worked as an announcer and news writer at the radio station CHNC in New Carlisle, as a substitute announcer for CHRC during 1941 and 1942, and then at CBV in Quebec City. [4]

Quebec City Provincial capital city in Quebec, Canada

Quebec City, officially Québec, is the capital city of the Canadian province of Quebec. The city had a population estimate of 531,902 in July 2016, and the metropolitan area had a population of 800,296 in July 2016, making it the second largest city in Quebec after Montreal, and the seventh largest metropolitan area and eleventh largest city in the country.

Society of Jesus male religious congregation of the Catholic Church

The Society of Jesus is a scholarly religious congregation of the Catholic Church for men founded by Ignatius of Loyola and approved by Pope Paul III. The members are called Jesuits. The society is engaged in evangelization and apostolic ministry in 112 nations. Jesuits work in education, intellectual research, and cultural pursuits. Jesuits also give retreats, minister in hospitals and parishes, sponsor direct social ministries, and promote ecumenical dialogue.

Université Laval university in Quebec, Canada

Université Laval is a French-language, public research university in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. The University was founded by royal charter issued by Queen Victoria in 1852, with roots in the founding of the Séminaire de Québec in 1663 by François de Montmorency-Laval, making it the oldest centre of higher education in Canada and the first North American institution to offer higher education in French. The university, whose campus was erected from the 1950s onward in the suburban borough of Sainte-Foy–Sillery–Cap-Rouge, is ranked among the top 10 Canadian universities in terms of research funding and holds 4 Canada Excellence Research Chairs.

During 1944–1945, he served as a liaison officer and war correspondent for the U.S. Army in Europe. He reported from London while it was under regular bombardment by the Luftwaffe, and advanced with the Allied troops as they pushed back the German army through France and Germany. Throughout the war, he made regular journalistic reports on the airwaves and in print. He was with the first unit of Americans to reach Dachau concentration camp. [4]

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of both England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

<i>Luftwaffe</i> Aerial warfare branch of the German military forces during World War II

The Luftwaffe was the aerial warfare branch of the combined German Wehrmacht military forces during World War II. Germany's military air arms during World War I, the Luftstreitkräfte of the Army and the Marine-Fliegerabteilung of the Navy, had been disbanded in May 1920 as a result of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which stated that Germany was forbidden to have any air force.

Allies of World War II Grouping of the victorious countries of World War II

The Allies of World War II, called the "United Nations" from the 1 January 1942 declaration, were the countries that together opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War (1939–1945). The Allies promoted the alliance as a means to control German, Japanese and Italian aggression.

In 1947, he married Louise L'Heureux, with whom he would have two sons and a daughter. [5] Lévesque worked as a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's French Language section in the international service. He again served as a war correspondent for CBC in the Korean War in 1952. After that, he was offered a career in journalism in the United States, but decided to stay in Quebec. [6]

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, branded as CBC/Radio-Canada, is a Canadian federal Crown corporation that serves as the national public broadcaster for both radio and television. The English- and French-language service units of the corporation are commonly known as CBC and Radio-Canada.

Korean War 1950–1953 war between North Korea and South Korea

The Korean War was a war between North Korea and South Korea. The war began on 25 June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea following a series of clashes along the border.

From 1956 to 1959, Lévesque became famous in Quebec for hosting a weekly television news program on Radio-Canada called Point de Mire . [4]

Lévesque covered international events and major labour struggles between workers and corporations that dogged the Union Nationale government of premier Maurice Duplessis culminating with a great strike in 1957 at the Gaspé Copper Mine in Murdochville. The Murdochville strike was a milestone for organized labour in Quebec as it resulted in changes to the province's labour laws.

While working for the public television network, he became personally involved in the broadcasters' strike that lasted 68 tumultuous days beginning in late 1958. Lévesque was arrested during a demonstration in 1959, along with union leader Jean Marchand and 24 other demonstrators.

Public figure

Levesque interviews Lester B. Pearson in Moscow for Radio-Canada in 1955 LevesqueinterviewsPearsoninMoscow.jpg
Lévesque interviews Lester B. Pearson in Moscow for Radio-Canada in 1955

In 1960, Lévesque entered politics as a star candidate and was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Quebec in the 1960 election as a Liberal Party member in the riding of Montréal-Laurier. In the government of Jean Lesage, he served as Minister of Hydroelectric Resources and Public Works from 1960 to 1961, and Minister of Natural Resources from 1961 to 1965. While in office, he played a pivotal role in the nationalisation of hydroelectric companies, greatly expanding Hydro-Québec, one of the reforms that was part of the Quiet Revolution. [4]

From 1965 to 1966 he served as Minister of Family and Welfare. Lévesque, with friend and Minister of Health Eric Kierans, was heavily involved in negotiations with the Federal government to fund both Quebec and Federal mandates for social programs.

In a surprise, the Liberals lost the 1966 election to the Union Nationale but Lévesque retained his own seat of Laurier. Believing that the Canadian federation was doomed to failure, Lévesque started to openly champion separation from Canada as part of the Liberal platform at the upcoming party conference. Kierans, who had been elected party president, led the movement against the motion, with future Premier Robert Bourassa attempting to mediate before siding with Kierans. The resolution was handily defeated, and Lévesque walked out with his followers.

Founding of the Parti Québécois

Rene Levesque on provincial election night at the Paul Sauve Arena in Montreal, October 29, 1973. Rene Levesque - election 1973 - LAC PA115039.jpg
René Lévesque on provincial election night at the Paul Sauvé Arena in Montreal, October 29, 1973.

After leaving the Liberal Party, he founded the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association. In contrast to more militant nationalist movements, such as Pierre Bourgault's Rassemblement pour l'Indépendance Nationale, the party eschewed direct action and protest and attempted instead to appeal to the broader electorate, whom Lévesque would call "normal people". The main contention in the first party conference was the proposed policy toward Quebec's Anglophone minority; Lévesque faced down heavy opposition to his insistence that English schools and language rights be protected.

The election of hardline federalist Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister, and the politically damaging riot instigated by the RIN when he appeared at the St. Jean Baptiste Day parade of 1968, led to the sovereignty movement coming together. The MSA would merge with another party in the Quebec sovereignty movement, the Ralliement National of Gilles Grégoire, to create the Parti Québécois in 1968. At Lévesque's insistence, RIN members would be permitted to join but not be accepted as a group. [7]

The PQ would gain 25% of the vote in the 1970 election, running on a platform of declaring independence if government was formed. The PQ only won 6 seats, and Lévesque continued to run the party from Montreal by communicating with the caucus in Quebec City.

The 1973 election saw a large Liberal victory, and created major tensions within the party, especially after Lévesque was unable to gain a seat. A quarrel with House Leader Robert Burns almost ended Lévesque's leadership shortly thereafter.

First term as Premier

Lévesque and his party won a landslide victory at the 1976 election, with Lévesque finally re-entering the Assembly as the member for Taillon. His party assumed power with 41.1 per cent of the popular vote and 71 seats out of 110, and even managed to unseat Bourassa in his own riding. Lévesque became Premier of Quebec ten days later.

The night of Lévesque's acceptance speech included one of his most famous quotations: "I never thought that I could be so proud to be Québécois."

On February 6, 1977, Lévesque's car fatally struck Edgar Trottier, a homeless man who had been lying on the road. Trottier had in the past repeatedly used the manoeuvre to secure a hospital bed for the night. Police officers at the scene did not administer the breathalyzer test to Lévesque, because they did not suspect that he was impaired. [8] Levesque was later fined $25 for failing to wear his glasses while driving a car on the night in question. [9] The incident gained further notoriety when it was revealed that the female companion in the vehicle was not his wife, but his longtime secretary, Corinne Côté. Lévesque’s marriage ended in divorce soon thereafter (the couple had already been estranged for some time), and in April 1979, he married Côté.

Lévesque's Act to govern the financing of political parties banned corporate donations and limited individual contributions to political parties to $3,000. This key legislation was meant to prevent wealthy citizens and organizations from having a disproportionate influence on the electoral process. A Referendum Act was passed to allow for a province-wide vote on issues presented in a referendum, giving a "yes" and "no" side equal funding and legal footing.

His government's signature achievement was the Quebec Charter of the French Language (colloquially known as "Bill 101"), whose stated goal was 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 francophone culture (Lévesque was more moderate on language than some of the PQ, including the language minister, Camille Laurin. He would have resigned as leader rather than eliminate English-language public schools, as some party members proposed). [10]

Bill 101 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.

On May 20, 1980, the PQ held, as promised before the elections, 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 by announcing that, as he had understood the verdict, he had been told "until next time". [11]

Lévesque led the PQ to victory in the 1981 election, increasing the party's majority in the National Assembly and increasing its share of the popular vote from 41 to 49 per cent.

Second term

A major focus of his second mandate was the patriation of the Canadian constitution. Lévesque was criticized by some in Quebec who said he had been tricked by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the English-Canadian provincial premiers. To this day, no Quebec premier of any political side has endorsed the 1982 constitutional amendment.

The PQ government's response to the recession of the early 1980s by cutting the Provincial budget to reduce growing deficits that resulted from the recession angered labour union members, a core part of the constituency of the PQ and the sovereignty movement. Lévesque had argued that the party should not make sovereignty the object of the 1985 election and instead opt for the "Beau risque" strategy of seeking an understanding with the federal government of Brian Mulroney, which angered the strongest supporters of sovereignty within the party. He said the issue in the upcoming election would not be sovereignty. Instead, he expressed hope, "that we can finally find government leaders in Ottawa who will discuss Quebec's demands seriously and work with us for the greater good of Quebecers". [12] His new position weakened his position within the party. Some senior members resigned; there were byelection defeats. Lévesque resigned as leader of the Parti Québécois on June 20, 1985, and as premier of Quebec on October 3, 1985. [13]

Lévesque, a constant smoker, [14] was hosting a dinner party in his Montreal apartment on the evening of November 1, 1987 when he experienced chest pains; he died of a myocardial infarction that night at Montreal General Hospital. [15] [16] A brief resurgence of separatist sentiment followed. Over 100,000 viewed his body lying in state in Montreal and Quebec City, over 10,000 went to his funeral in the latter city, and hundreds wept daily at his grave for months. [17]

Lévesque was a recipient of the title Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honour . He was posthumously made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec in 2008.


Levesque sculpture in front of the Quebec Parliament Building Assemblee nationale - Statue Rene Levesque2.jpg
Lévesque sculpture in front of the Quebec Parliament Building

Despite a perceived weakening of his sovereigntist resolve in the last years of his government, he reaffirmed his belief to friends and, notably, to a crowd of Université Laval students months before his death, of the necessity of independence.[ citation needed ]

His state funeral and funeral procession was reportedly attended by 100,000 Québécois. During the carrying out of his coffin from the church, the crowd spontaneously began to applaud and sing Quebec's unofficial national anthem "Gens du pays", replacing the first verse with Mon cher René (My dear René), as is the custom when this song is adapted to celebrate someone's birthday. Two major boulevards now bear his name, one in Montreal and one in Quebec City. In Montreal, the Édifice Hydro-Québec and the Maison Radio-Canada are both located on René Lévesque Boulevard, fittingly as Lévesque once worked for Hydro-Québec and the CBC, respectively. On June 22, 2010, Hydro-Québec and the government of Quebec commemorated Lévesque's role in Quebec's Quiet Revolution and his tenure as premier by renaming the 1244-megawatt Manic-3 generating station in his honour. [18]

On June 3, 1999, a monument in his honour was unveiled on boulevard René-Lévesque outside the Parliament Building in Quebec City. The statue is popular with tourists, who snuggle up to it, to have their pictures taken "avec René" (with René), despite repeated attempts by officials to keep people from touching the monument or getting too close to it. The statue had been the source of an improvised, comical and affectionately touching tribute to Lévesque. The fingers of his extended right hand are slightly parted, just enough so that tourists and the faithful could insert a cigarette, giving the statue an unusually realistic appearance.

This practice is less often seen now, however, as the statue was moved to New Carlisle and replaced by a similar, but bigger one. This change resulted from considerable controversy. Some believed that the life-sized statue was not appropriate for conveying his importance in the history of Quebec. Others noted that a trademark of Lévesque was his relatively small stature.

Lévesque today remains an important figure of the Quebec nationalist movement, and is considered sovereigntism's spiritual father. After his death, even people in disagreement with some of those convictions now generally recognise his importance to the history of Quebec. Many in Quebec regard him as the father of the modern Quebec nation. According to a study made in 2006 by Le Journal de Montréal and Léger Marketing, René Lévesque was considered by far, according to the Québécois, the best premier to run the province over the last 50 years. [19]

Of the things he left as his legacy, some of the most memorable and still robust 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. [20] He also continued the work of the Lesage government in improving social services, in which social needs were taken care of by the state, instead of the Catholic Church (as in the Duplessis era) or the individual. Lévesque is still regarded by many as a symbol of democracy and tolerance.

Lévesque was notably portrayed in the television series René Lévesque . In 2006, an additional television miniseries, René Lévesque , was aired on the CBC. He was also portrayed in an episode of Kevin Spencer , a Canadian cartoon show. In it, his ghost attempted a camaraderie with Kevin because of their similarities in political beliefs, as well as the fact that the title character, like René's ghost, claims to smoke "five packs a day".

A song by Les Cowboys Fringants named "Lettre à Lévesque" on the album La Grand-Messe was dedicated to him. They also mention the street bearing his name in the song called "La Manifestation".

He was the co-subject along with Pierre Trudeau in the Donald Brittain-directed documentary miniseries The Champions .


Lévesque was a man capable of great tact and charm, but who could also be abrupt and choleric when defending beliefs, ideals, or morals essential to him, or when lack of respect was perceived, for example, when he was famously snubbed by François Mitterrand at their first meeting. He was also a proud Gaspésien (from the Gaspé peninsula), and had hints of the local accent.

Considered a major defender of the Québécois, Lévesque was, before the 1960s, more interested in international affairs than Quebec matters. The popular image of Lévesque was his ever-present cigarette and his small physical stature, as well as his unique comb over that earned him the nickname of Ti-Poil, literally, "Li'l Hair", but more accurately translated as "Baldy". Lévesque was a passionate and emotional public speaker. Those close to Lévesque have described him as having difficulty expressing his emotions in private, saying that he was more comfortable in front of a crowd of thousands than with one person.

While many Quebec intellectuals are inspired by French philosophy and high culture, Lévesque favoured the United States. While in London during the Second World War, his admiration for Britons grew when he witnessed their courage in the face of the German bombardments. He was a faithful reader of The New York Times , and took his vacations in New England every year. He also stated that, if there had to be one role model for him, it would be US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Lévesque was disappointed with the cold response by the American economic elite to his first speech in New York City as Premier of Quebec, in which he compared Quebec's march towards sovereignty to the American Revolution. His first speech in France was, however, more successful, leading him to a better appreciation of the French intelligentsia and of French culture.


Memorial plaque in Quebec City Renelevesque.jpg
Memorial plaque in Québec City

See also

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Further reading

National Assembly of Quebec
Preceded by
Arsène Gagné (Union Nationale)
MNA, District of Laurier
Succeeded by
André Marchand (Liberal)
Preceded by
Guy Leduc (Liberal)
MNA, District of Taillon
Succeeded by
Claude Filion (PQ)
Political offices
Preceded by
Robert Bourassa (Liberal)
Premier of Quebec
Succeeded by
Pierre-Marc Johnson (PQ)
Party political offices
Preceded by
Leader of the Parti Québécois
Succeeded by
Pierre-Marc Johnson