Pity the party that misspells the name of René Lévesque on its campaign posters, as Quebec’s Conservatives did recently. Bad timing for that bit of sacrilege.
The late sovereigntist leader is not a candidate in the coming provincial election, of course, but his name is everywhere in Quebec right now, including in the riding of René-Lévesque, where those unfortunate signs appeared. (No accent on the fourth e, for the record.)
Mr. Lévesque would have been 100 this year, and the centenary has prompted reverent commemorations from the Gaspé Peninsula to unlikely anglophone corners of Montreal.
During a bitter partisan race, memories of the Parti Québécois founder have united the province in appreciation of a statesman from a bygone era. Rumpled, half-bald and wry, he looks out from memorials across Quebec, as celebrations stretch on to next year’s Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.
A once-controversial and all-too-human figure – who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, played poker deep into the night, and nearly took Quebec out of Canada – is now undergoing his own kind of canonization.
“We’re not depicting the man, we’re depicting a saint,” said historian Jean-Charles Panneton.
The tide of positive feeling around Mr. Lévesque is overwhelming, even by the standards of rose-tinted hindsight. Seventy-eight per cent of Quebeckers had a favourable opinion of him in a Leger poll commissioned by L’actualité magazine earlier this year, far higher than any other former premier.
He was never so beloved during his lifetime. Although he came to power in 1976 on a wave of enthusiasm, the 1980 sovereignty referendum was “traumatic,” dividing families and falling well short of victory, said Mr. Panneton, who authored an in-depth study of Mr. Lévesque’s time in office.
A bad economy and labour strife dragged down his overall popularity in the early 1980s, while the hard-core independence wing of his party tired of Mr. Lévesque’s relative moderation on constitutional issues. He stepped down as premier in 1985 politically and physically exhausted.
When he died suddenly of a heart attack two years later, however, Quebeckers remembered what they had always loved about their “cher René” in an outpouring of public grief.
From his time as a pioneering foreign correspondent for Radio-Canada in the 1950s, he forged a close connection with ordinary people, thanks to a simple, earnest way of speaking and an everyman humility that was reflected in his slight figure and plain clothes.
When he led the nationalization of power companies as a provincial Liberal cabinet minister in the early 1960s, he helped give francophone Quebeckers a sense of “pride,” said Mr. Panneton, by giving them more control over the economy.
The reforms of his first PQ government created 21st-century Quebec in many ways, especially Bill 101, which required immigrants to send their children to school in French and made French the common language of work for large companies.
“There’s really a very emotional, sentimental attachment between Lévesque and Quebeckers,” said Mr. Panneton. “It goes beyond the generations and beyond time.”
Little wonder that so many politicians have tried to borrow some of the Lévesque magic this election season. At the official launch of his centenary in June, party leaders took turns presenting themselves as the true inheritors of the Lévesque legacy, from the nationalist Premier François Legault, who underlined Mr. Lévesque’s nationalism; to the more pro-immigration Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade, who said Mr. Lévesque was beloved for his openness to the world.
The reflected glory of Mr. Lévesque’s memory has done little to help his old party, ironically, which continues to poll in fifth place and is fighting to hang on to its few remaining seats in the National Assembly. That hasn’t stopped the Parti Québécois from taking advantage of the anniversary, like when leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon denounced an editorial cartoon in the Montreal Gazette that showed an old woman’s dog, draped in a Canadian flag, peeing on a placard of Mr. Lévesque’s face. The artist pleaded that he was satirizing old-line Anglo attitudes, not replicating them.
Anglophones and allophones have warmed to Mr. Lévesque over the years. A plurality have a favourable opinion of him today, according to the Leger poll – a far cry from community opinion in the 1970s, when Bill 101 sparked an exodus to Ontario.
Even Robert Libman, former leader of the now-defunct Anglo-rights Equality Party, recently wrote in the Gazette about his retrospective admiration for Mr. Lévesque, praising his democratic spirit and empathy for minorities.
“He was always in communication with the anglophone community and he always gave us the impression that he cared,” said Mr. Libman in an interview.
By contrast, the Montreal architect said Mr. Legault has treated English speakers high-handedly in his toughening of Mr. Lévesque’s language law this year. The comparison and the passage of time have combined to produce a certain “nostalgia” for the old sovereigntist warrior.
Wistfulness for the Lévesque era may come in part from the “disenchantment” of politics since the 1960s, when government was seen as a credible avenue for transforming society through the application of great ideals, said Jocelyn Létourneau, a professor of history at Laval University.
If the politicians of today don’t seem to measure up, he said, “it’s possible that in general on the political plane we’ve entered into an era when we need politicians who fix problems as quickly and efficiently as possible, rather than visionaries or prophets.”
Gazing at an outdoor exhibit about Mr. Lévesque’s life along Montreal’s downtown Promenade des Artistes last week, 66-year-old Gérald Pharand was amazed at the scale of his “hero’s” achievements. There are fewer giants in Quebec politics today, Mr. Pharand said sadly.
This election, he will be voting for the party of François Legault, but he doesn’t think anyone in the arena today compares to René Lévesque.
“He was short in stature, but he was a great man,” said Mr. Pharand. “Filling his shoes is very hard.”