Skip to main content

Graham Fraser is a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, a former official languages commissioner and the author of René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of René Lévesque – the man who built the modern Hydro-Québec as a Liberal minister, founded the Parti Québécois and was premier of Quebec from 1976 until 1985.

Under his leadership, Quebec banned corporate contributions to political parties; introduced agricultural zoning and government automobile insurance; and, despite his initial reluctance, passed the Charter of the French Language – known in English as Bill 101. There will be a series of conferences, beginning on June 13, commemorating Lévesque’s legacy.

Legault is expected to participate, and he will be able to point to a number of things he has in common with Lévesque. Both men grew up in predominantly English-speaking communities – Lévesque in New Carlisle, and Legault in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. Both created new parties, bringing together different streams of Quebec nationalists. Both have presided over the introduction of legislation intended to protect the French language, which disrupted and unnerved the English communities of Quebec.

But there are also differences, and they are striking. Lévesque grew up completely bilingual and went to work as a broadcaster for the American military during the Second World War; his English was comfortable and colloquial, and he wrote warmly of his English-speaking colleagues. By contrast, Legault had a hostile relationship with his English-speaking neighbours – he writes about the neighbourhood fights in his memoir Cap sur un Québec gagnant – and is uncomfortable in English. In his book, in which he lists virtually all the people he worked with before entering politics, there are no anglophones.

Lévesque staked his leadership of his fledgling party on his defence of the English minority; Legault is presiding over a government that passed a bill filled with petty, vengeful attacks on the English communities and their institutions.

Lévesque built the Parti Québécois from progressive roots in the east end of Montreal; Legault’s party’s base is conservative, with almost no representation from Montreal.

Legault’s true political inspiration is not Lévesque but former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis. He made the comparison himself, early in his mandate, referring to Duplessis’s Union Nationale and quipping, “now it’s called the CAQ.”

Like Duplessis, he created his party out of conservative nationalist groups. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, like Duplessis’s UN, is overwhelmingly strong in rural, suburban and small-town Quebec, with only one anglophone member.

Like Duplessis, Legault has no patience for criticism from the English media. When Aaron Derfel of the Montreal Gazette revealed the appalling conditions in the Herron long-term care facility, the Premier’s response was to lash out several times accusing the reporter of systematically trying to discredit the provincial government. Duplessis responded the same way to criticism published in Maclean’s.

Just as Duplessis endorsed the federal Progressive Conservatives, enabling John Diefenbaker to win 50 seats in Quebec in 1958, Legault – less successfully – urged Quebeckers to vote Conservative in the last election, praising Erin O’Toole.

But the most striking similarity is how both premiers used the power of their government to attack minorities.

In Duplessis’s case, it was the infamous Padlock Act, passed in 1937. The law gave police, under the authority of the attorney-general – a post Duplessis held himself – the ability to shut meeting places that were suspected of endorsing “communism” or “Bolshevism.” The terms were undefined, and the law was used to persecute any group that Duplessis disapproved of: labour unions, Jews, communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In 1946, Duplessis used the law to refuse to renew the liquor licence for Frank Roncarelli, a Montreal restaurateur and Jehovah’s Witness who had been putting up bail for Witnesses who were arrested for proselytizing their faith. Duplessis called this “a provocation to public order.” (Previously, he had cancelled the licences of those who had not contributed to the UN. The case was challenged before the courts, and more than a decade later, the Supreme Court ruled in Roncarelli’s favour.

A similar kind of petty vengefulness can be seen in the Legault government’s language legislation, Bill 96, which was recently passed by the National Assembly. Just as the Padlock Act gave police powers to lock up private property, Bill 96 gives inspectors the power to search and seize in order to verify if French was used in internal workplace communications.

Just as Duplessis raged against federal funding for universities, the Legault government has cancelled funding for the expansion of Dawson College, put a cap on enrolment by non-anglophone students in junior colleges and imposed a requirement of three French courses for anglophone students.

Two of Duplessis’s critics, F. R. Scott and Pierre Trudeau, advocated for a charter of rights in the 1950s – which Trudeau succeeded in doing with the 1982 introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, to Scott’s annoyance, the prime minister agreed to the inclusion of a so-called “notwithstanding clause” at the insistence of premiers Peter Lougheed of Alberta and Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan.

Now, Premier Legault of Quebec has pre-emptively used that notwithstanding clause to block court challenges to Bill 96 – an implicit acknowledgment that the law is a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms.

That was Scott’s nightmare. Lévesque would be embarrassed. Duplessis would be proud.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.