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René Lévesque ( ) (August 24, 1922 – November 1, 1987) was a reporter, a minister of the government of Quebecmarker, Canadamarker (1960–1966), the founder of the Parti Québécois political party, and 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 political independence for Quebec. Lévesque was a recipient of the title Grand Officer of the Frenchmarker Legion of Honour. He was posthumously made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec in 2008.



The oldest of four children, René Lévesque was born in the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Campbellton, New Brunswickmarker and raised 133 km away in New Carlisle, Quebecmarker, in the Gaspé peninsula by his parents, Dominic Lévesque, a lawyer, and Diane Dionne. Lévesque attended the Séminaire de Gaspé and the Saint-Charles-Garnier College in Quebec Citymarker, both of which were run by the Jesuit. He studied for a law degree at Université Lavalmarker in Quebec City, but left the university in 1943 without having completed the degree.

War correspondent

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. During 1944–1945, he served as a liaison officer and war correspondent for the U.S. Army in Europe. He reported from Londonmarker while it was under regular bombardment by the Luftwaffe, and advanced with the Allied troops as they swept back the Nazis through Francemarker and Germanymarker. Through the war, he made regular journalistic reports on the airwaves and in print. He was with the first unit of Americans to reach the Dachau concentration campmarker, and was profoundly touched by what he witnessed.

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

Public figure

From 1956 to 1959, Lévesque became famous in Quebec for hosting a weekly television news program at the Radio-Canada (the French-language counterpart of the CBC) called Point de Mire. While working for the public television network, he became involved in the 1958 strike, which lasted 68 tumultuous days. Supported by his later bitter political rival, Pierre Trudeau, Lévesque was arrested in 1959, along with 29 other strikers.

Involvement in politics

In 1960, Lévesque entered politics and was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Quebec in the 1960 election as a Liberal Party member. 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 an important role in the nationalisation of hydroelectric companies, greatly expanding Hydro-Québec, one of the reforms that was part of the Quiet Revolution.

From 1965 to 1966 he served as Minister of Family and Welfare. The Liberals lost the 1966 election to the Union Nationale but Lévesque retained his own seat.

Parti Québécois leader

On October 14, 1967, Lévesque left the Liberal Party after its members refused to discuss the idea of a sovereign Quebec during its convention. He remained as the independent representative of the Montreal-Laurier riding until the 1970 election. After leaving the Liberal Party, he founded the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association, which later merged with another sovereigntist party, the Ralliement National of Gilles Grégoire, to create the Parti Québécois in 1968. He remained leader of the Parti Québécois from 1968 until his resignation in 1985.

After failing to win a seat in his riding in the 1970 election and the 1973 election, he and his party swept the 1976 election. Lévesque won his own seat in the riding of Taillon. His party assumed power with 41.1 per cent of the popular vote and 71 seats out of 110; René 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 Quebecois."
René Lévesque on election night, 1973

On February 06, 1977, Lévesque's car fatally struck Edgar Trottier, a homeless man who had been lying on the road. It was alleged that Lévesque had been driving while intoxicated. The incident gained extra notoriety when it was revealed that the female companion in the vehicle was not his wife, but a secretary named 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.

His Parti Québécois government also passed the Quebec Charter of the French Language (also known as "Bill 101"), whose goal was (and still is) 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 French culture. (Lévesque was more moderate on language than some of the PQ, including language minister, Camille Laurin. He would have resigned as leader rather than eliminate English public schools, as party extremists proposed.) [26676]

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 (while more than 80% of the population was of French origin).

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, but his concession speech called upon sovereigntists to persevere À la prochaine fois! (until next time).

Lévesque led the PQ to victory in the 1981 election, increasing the party's majority in the National Assembly of Quebec and increasing its share of the popular vote from 41.1 to 49 per cent.

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 angered labour union members, a core part of the constituency of the PQ and the sovereignty movement.

A split within the party over how much emphasis to put on sovereignty in the next election led to Lévesque's resignation as leader of the Parti Québécois on June 20, 1985, and as premier of Quebec on October 3. Lévesque had argued that the party should not make sovereignty the object of the election, which angered the strongest supporters of sovereignty within the party.

Lévesque, a constant smoker, was in his apartment on November 1, 1987 when he experienced chest pains; he died of a heart attack that day at a hospital. 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.


Statue of Levesque on the grounds of the Quebec legislature
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 passing, of the necessity of independence.

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 one person. Two major boulevards now bear his name, onemarker in Montrealmarker and one in Quebec City. In Montreal, Édifice Hydro-Québec and Maison Radio-Canadamarker are both located on René Lévesque Boulevard, fittingly as Lévesque once worked for Hydro-Québec and the CBC, respectively.

On June 03, 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 Quebecmarker. Others noted that a trademark of Lévesque was his relative small stature.

Lévesque remains today an important figure of the Quebec nationalist movement, and is considered sovereigntism's spiritual father. After his passing, even people in disagreement with some of his convictions (like sovereigntism) now generally recognize his importance to the history of Quebec. Many in Quebec regard him as the father of the modern Quebec nation.

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. [26677] 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.

According to a study made in 2006 by Le Journal de Montréal and Léger Marketing, René Lévesque was considered by far according to Quebecoismarker the best premier to run the province over the last 50 years. [26678]


He 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 Québécois, Lévesque was, before the 1960s, more interested by international affairs than Quebec matters. The popular image of Lévesque was his ever-present cigarette and his small physical stature, as well as by his unique comb over that earned him the nickname of Ti-Poil, literally, "Lil' 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 the Frenchmarker philosophy and high culture, Lévesque favoured the United States of Americamarker. While in London during the Second World War, his admiration for Britons grew when he saw as their admirable courage in the face of the German bombardments. He was a faithful reader of the New York Times, and took his vacations in New Englandmarker every year. He has also stated that, if there had to be one role model for him, it would be U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Lévesque was disappointed with the cold response by the American economic elite to his first speech in New York Citymarker 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.

Lévesque in media

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 have also mentioned 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 mini-series The Champions.



  1. Graham Fraser, Ivon Owen. René Lévesque & the Parti Québécois in Power, p.13. McGill-Queen's Press, 2001, ISBN 0773523235
  2. Paulin, Marguerite. René Lévesque, p.123. XYZ Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1894852133
  3. Conway, John Frederick. Debts to Pay, p.128-9. James Lorimer & Company, 2004, ISBN 1550288148


  • Option-Québec (1968)
  • La passion du Québec (1978)
  • Oui (1980)
  • Attendez que je me rappelle (1986) (although the title means 'Wait for me to remember'; the title of the English-language version was Memoirs)

See also


  • Paulin, Marguerite (2004). René Lévesque: Charismatic Leader, XYZ Publishing, 176 pages ISBN 1894852133 (translated by Jonathan Kaplansky)
  • Fennario, David (2003). The Death of René Lévesque, Talonbooks, March 10, 72 pages ISBN 0889224803
  • Fraser, Graham (2002). PQ: René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power, Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press; 2nd edition, 434 pages ISBN 0773523103
  • Fournier, Claude (1995). René Lévesque: Portrait of a Man Alone, McClelland & Stewart, April 15, 272 pages ISBN 0771032161
  • Lévesque, René (1986). René Lévesque Memoirs, McClelland & Stewart (translated by Philip Stratford)
  • Fraser, Graham (1984). PQ: René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power, Montreal, Libre Expression
  • Lévesque, René (1979). My Québec, Methuen, 191 pages, ISBN 0458939803
  • Provencher, Jean and Ellis, David (1977). René Lévesque: Portrait of a Québécois, Paperjacks, ISBN 0770100201
  • Lévesque, René (1977). Quotations from René Lévesque, Éditions Héritage, 105 pages ISBN 0777339420
  • Dupont, Pierre (1977). How Levesque Won, Lorimer, 136 pages ISBN 0888621302 (translated by Sheila Fischman)
  • Lévesque, René (1968). An Option for Quebec, McClelland and Stewart, 128 pages
  • Desbarats, Peter (1976). Rene: a Canadian in search of a country, McClelland and Stewart, 223 pages ISBN 0771026919
  • "René Lévesque's Separatist Fight", in the CBC Archives Web site
  • Lévesque, René. "For an Independent Quebec", in Foreign Affairs, July, 1976) [26679]

Elections as party leader

External links

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