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Levesque’s Unique Role

Rene Levesque, who announced his resignation as Quebec’s premier last week, put his stamp on the politics of both his province and his country for nearly two decades. He and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau were the principal antagonists as Quebec wrestled with its massive identity crisis, and it is somehow fitting that both players will have left the stage at roughly the same time. The question for Quebec province will be, as it was for the country as a whole, how long it will take a new leader’s replacement to develop similar stature.

Levesque founded the Parti Quebecois as a separatist political organization in 1968 because the French-speaking majority in Quebec felt submerged in English Canada. Levesque came to power in 1976, defeating Liberal Robert Bourassa, who now stands ahead in opinion polls for the next national election. The question of a separate identity for Quebec went on the ballot as a referendum in 1980. But, to make the issue palatable to more voters, the PQ worded the question vaguely, calling for a sovereignty-association relationship with the federal government of Canada. It didn’t catch on, and Levesque and his party lost the referendum on a 3-2 vote. The party’s hold on power has slipped ever since.

Recognizing that separatism’s moment may have come and gone, Levesque attempted to shift the party’s focus to economic matters like the need for more jobs. Unemployment stands at 11.8% in Quebec, slightly higher than the national average but lower than the rate in some other provinces. The shift angered some party members who quit as well as others who have been pressuring Levesque to step down.

Rene Levesque put Quebec’s concerns squarely on the national agenda at the same time that Pierre Trudeau, who was from Quebec himself, tried in his way to deal with them. Canadians complain that theirs is a bland country, but there was no blandness about these two. Their absence must not let Canada forget the unique heritage of Quebec or ignore its unique problems.

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