Rene Levesque, one of the most controversial politicians in North America, said goodby as a leader Friday to members of his party and to the public that he tried unsuccessfully to mold into an independent nation.
A sometimes tearful, sometimes cheering crowd of several thousand Parti Quebecois faithful crowded into a hockey rink in a working-class, French-speaking neighborhood to hear Levesque, 62, make his farewells.
His last public speech as leader of the party and as provincial premier of Quebec opened a three-day convention at which his successor will be named.
Although he was followed to the platform by the six candidates for his job, attention was focused on the man who was once seen by some as a traitor to Canada and by others as the savior of the only predominantly French-speaking society in North America.
Lack of Fulfillment Felt
Despite Friday’s hoopla, there was an edge of disappointment, a feeling of unfulfilled desire, even a sense of confusion surrounding Levesque’s departure.
He swept into office nine years ago with a surprising victory based on a call for a Quebec nation, independent of a Canada dominated by English-speakers. He was taken seriously by the rest of Canada and by the United States, where some politicians called him the “Fidel Castro of the North.”
But Levesque’s wish was not to be. Even though he and the Parti Quebecois were reelected in 1981, the 6 million people of his province had rejected his plan for independence in a referendum the year before.
Since then, the PQ, as the party is called, has suffered a steady and serious loss of popular support, losing more than 20 straight by-elections for the provincial assembly and falling about 20 percentage points behind the opposition Liberal Party in opinion polls.
Levesque, showing a dedication to democracy and a pragmatic acceptance of political realities, toned down both his demands and his language about an independent Quebec. Last spring, he led a party-splitting drive to drop independence as an immediate goal. Then, on June 21, he announced he would step down as party leader and premier.
Move Away From Goal
A sign of how far the PQ has traveled away from the goal of independence is the expected selection of Pierre Marc Johnson as Levesque’s successor. Johnson, 39, the provincial minister of justice, has waged his leadership campaign on the basis of near-repudiation of the idea of independence.
Although Levesque’s drive for sovereignty failed, he is credited by political friends and enemies alike with forcing the English-speaking Establishment of the federal government and the powerful English-speaking minority of Quebec to accept his demand that Quebec and its French culture be given special consideration commensurate with its historic role in Canada.
He established that French had to be the primary means of communication in the province’s business and culture.
And he created a belief among the French majority and the English minority that speaking French was not a sign of subservience, even though he set off a storm of criticism with passage of a bill requiring the use of only French in schools, in advertising and in nearly all businesses.
In an interview last spring, the chain-smoking premier spoke proudly of his achievements in raising the self-confidence of the Quebec people.
More College Students
“In the 1960s,” he said, “only 4% of the Quebecois went to college. Now, more than 20% do.”
And he said that one in six of those attending universities study business or economics, compared with only 10% in Canada generally. This concentration has contributed to increasing the share of the Quebec economy owned by French-speakers to 40%, compared to only half that as recently as 20 years ago.
Columnist Don MacPherson, writing in the strongly anti-PQ English-language Montreal Gazette, summed up Levesque’s accomplishments as follows:
“He will leave behind a Quebec that is no longer preoccupied with the questions of independence and language and will move on to other things. He will also leave behind a province more at peace with itself than when he began his political career more than 25 years ago.”