As premier of the province of Quebec, Canada, from 1976 to 1985, René Lévesque (1922-1987) was the first French-Canadian political leader since confederation to attempt, through a referendum, to negotiate political independence for Quebec.
René Lévesque was born in New Carlisle, in the Gaspé region of Quebec, on August 24, 1922, the son of Dominique Lévesque, a lawyer, and of Diane Dionne-Pineault. Upon completing his primary education in New Carlisle, he pursued his classical education at the Jesuit Collège de Gaspé and the Collège Saint-Charles-Garnier in Quebec City. In the fall of 1941 he began studies in law at Laval University, which he did not complete.
He pursued a career in radio journalism and acted as a liaison agent and war correspondent for the U. S. armed forces in 1944 and 1945. Between 1946 and 1951 he worked for the French-language section of the International Service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After serving as correspondent in Korea in 1951-1952, he created Radio-Canada's news service system and co-produced the program Carrefour (Crossroads). Between 1956 and 1959 he produced and served as animator for a television news program entitled Point de mire (Target). During 1959 he led a bitter campaign for the creation of a union for Radio-Canada's producers. When that goal was accomplished he left Radio-Canada a committed neo-nationalist in search of a new career and a new country.
Attracted by the neo-nationalist platform of the Quebec Liberal Party of Jean Lesage, Lévesque accepted an invitation to join the party. He quickly became one of the leading forces in Quebec's "Quiet Revolution" once the party defeated the longstanding Union Nationale Party in June 1960. As minister of natural resources from March 1961 to January 1966 he was responsible for the campaign which brought about 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.
Lévesque became one of the strongest proponents of a powerful, neo-nationalist Quebec state, both politically and economically. He was the government's most vociferous critic of the existing Canadian constitution. He advocated, as a minimum, "special status" for Quebec which entailed much greater taxing powers, exclusive control over all health and social welfare programs, and significant powers for Quebec in international affairs. When negotiations with Ottawa encountered serious opposition after 1965, he started promoting the concept of associate-state status for Quebec. His views were considered far too radical for the majority in the Liberal Party. After the party's defeat in 1966 he left and created the Mouvement souveraineté-association (MSA) in November 1967 which became the Parti Québéçois (PQ) in October 1968.
As president of the PQ from its formation into the 1980s René Lévesque pursued the party's central goal of achieving a new constitutional arrangement with the rest of Canada; that is, political independence with continued economic association. When Lévesque and the party agreed to postpone the constitutional question for a referendum, the PQ achieved power in November 1976. The PQ's most significant legislative measure was Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, which confirmed French as the only official language of the province and set out tough provisions to make French the language of work for all Quebeçois.
The Lévesque government prepared for the referendum by trying to assure American investors that a politically independent Quebec would remain a friendly ally of the United States and by seeking to assure Quebec citizens that sovereignty and association would be achieved simultaneously, thereby minimizing the socio-economic risks. During the historic 1980 referendum campaign, the Canadian prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, declared that the rest of Canada would never agree to political independence with the continued benefit of economic association for Quebec. He also promised to begin the process of reforming the century-old British North America Act to give Canada a renewed federal system. As a result of this dramatic intervention, 60 percent of the voters rejected the PQ's request for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association. The PQ strategy of achieving independence democratically and by stages had failed.
Under Lévesque's leadership the PQ won the 1981 provincial election, but the disintegration of the independence movement and its political expression, the PQ, set in immediately. Reduced to a mere premier caught in the dilemma of administering a debt ridden province faced with a serious recession and rising unemployment, and confronted with a humiliating defeat on the constitution which was voted down along with an amendment formula in 1982, Lévesque had to abandon long cherished plans for wide-ranging socio-economic reforms. In fact, he introduced deep cuts in the salaries as well as the quantity of public and para-public employees. The unlimited growth of the Quebec state was over.
The results were predictable. The PQ lost quite dramatically the widespread public support that had brought it to power in 1976. When Lévesque decided not to hold the forthcoming election on the issue of independence as promised, he precipitated a major schism in the party. All the leading independentists resigned, leaving his government in a precarious position.
While René Lévesque was responsible for many of the socio-economic reforms after 1960, the central goal of the Quiet Revolution—political independence for Quebec— had been thwarted. The neo-nationalist movement, led with great vigor and sincerity by Lévesque, would have to await a new leader and a more opportune time in order to re-emerge as a significant force in Quebec society. In 1985 Lévesque, one of Quebec's most sincere politicians, stepped down as party leader and was replaced by Pierre Marc Johnson, a Montreal lawyer and physician.
Further Reading on René Lévesque
There are two biographies of René Lévesque which deal with his career prior to his becoming premier in 1976: Peter Desbarats, René: A Canadian in Search of Country (1976) and Jean Provencher, René Lévesque: Portrait of a Quebecer (1975). On the rise of René Lévesque and the Parti Québéçois there is Pierre Dupont, How Lévesque Won: The Story of the PQ's Stunning Election Victory (1977) and Vera Murray, Le Parti Québéçois: de la fondation à la prise du pouvoir (1976). By far the best treatment of Lévesque is the study by a journalist, Graham Fraser, René Lévesque & the Parti Québéçois in Power (1984). Solid background for understanding the historical context in which Lévesque operated after World War II can be found in Michael D. Behiels, Prelude to Quebec's Quiet Revolution: Liberalism versus Neo-nationalism, 1945-1960 (1985) and Kenneth McRoberts and Dale Posgate, Quebec: Social and Political Crisis (1980).
Additional Biography Sources
Lévesque, René, Memoirs, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1995.