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Missing image
René Lévesque.

René Lévesque (August 24, 1922 - November 1, 1987), was a reporter, a minister of the government of Quebec, Canada, (1960 - 1966), the founder of the Parti Québécois political party, and 23rd Premier of Quebec (November 25, 1976 - October 3, 1985). He was a recipient of the title Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honour.




The eldest of four children, René Lévesque was born in the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Campbellton, New Brunswick. He was raised in New Carlisle, Quebec, in the Gaspé peninsula by his parents, Dominique Lévesque, a lawyer, and Diane Dionne. Lévesque attended a classical college in the Gaspé and the Saint-Charles-Garnier College in Quebec City. He studied for a law degree at Laval University 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 London while it was under regular bombardment by the Luftwaffe, and advanced with the Allied troops as they swept back the Nazis through France and Germany. Through the war, he made regular journalistic reports on the airwaves and by print. He was with the first unit of Americans to reach the Dachau concentration camp, 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 in the international service. He once more served as a war correspondent with 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 Quebec Liberal Party member. In the government of Jean Lesage, he was appointed Minister of Hydroelectric Resources and Public Works in 1960-1961, and Minister of Natural Resources from 1961 to 1965. While in office, he played an important role in the nationalization of hydroelectric companies, greatly expanding Hydro-Québec.

Lévesque helped implement the important political reforms that were later called the Quiet Revolution. He was appointed Minister of Family and Welfare for 1965-1966. 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, even beating the sitting premier, Robert Bourassa, in his own riding. 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.

His biographer, Pierre Godin, has spoken of an air of fiesta in the streets of Montreal on that historic night. 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 Quebecer."

On February 6, 1977, Lévesque's car fatally struck Edgar Trottier, a homeless man who had been lying on the road. 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 (the couple had already been estranged for some time), and the following April, 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 common language of all Quebecers. 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. Bill 101 also made it illegal for businesses to put up exterior commercial signs in a language other than French.

Lévesque's social policies based on social democratic principles. Some leftist Quebecers, however, were disappointed that his government did not live up to their expectations.

On May 20, 1980, the PQ held, as promised before the elections, the 1980 Quebec referendum on its sovereignty-association plan. The plan was approved by 40 per cent of the voting population. Lévesque conceded defeat in the referendum, but his concession speech called upon the perseverance of the sovereigntist militants with the famous À la prochaine fois! (until next time).

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

A major focus of his second mandate was the repatriation of the Canadian constitution. Lévesque was criticized by some in Quebec for having 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 his 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 Québec 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.

A heavy smoker, he died of a massive heart attack in 1987 at the age of 65.


Despite a perceived weakening of his sovereigntist resolve in the last years of his government, he reaffirmed his belief in the necessity of independence before his death to friends and, notably, to a crowd of Université Laval students months before his passing.

His state funeral and funeral procession was reportedly attended by 100,000 Quebecers. The popular love for the man was palpable when, at 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 by 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, one in Montreal and one in Quebec City.

On June 3, 1999, a monument in his honour was unveiled on boulevard René-Lévesque outside the Quebec National Assembly buildings in Quebec City. The statue is very popular with tourists, who snuggle up to it, to have their pictures taken "with René", despite repeated attempts by officials to keep people from touching the monument or getting too close to it. Some put a lighted cigarette in one of the hands of the statue before taking the group picture.

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 Quebec. Others note that a trademark of Lévesque was his relative and paradoxical 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 the nationalization of hydroelectricity through Hydro-Quebec, the Quebec Charter of the French Language, the political party financing law, and the Parti Québécois itself. He continued the work of the Lesage government in creating a welfare state, in which social needs were taken care of by the state, instead of the Catholic Church. Although this has recently been challenged by the Charest government, it remains an ideal held by a majority of Quebecers. Lévesque remains a symbol of democracy and tolerance within the Parti Québécois, and of the credibility of the sovereigntist movement.


He is remembered for his staunch morals and honesty, for his humility, and the humanism he strove to bring to all aspects of public service. In every discussion concerning the application of laws, he would insist that regulations and the practical control of operations take into account that civil servants were above all servants of the people. He used all his power as premier to ensure that every civil servant did his or her duty efficiently, while respecting equally each individual who came into contact with the government. He was a man capable of great tact and charm, but that could also be stout 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 in present times as a major defender of the Quebec people, Lévesque was, before the 1960s, more interested by international affairs than Quebec matters. The popular image of Lévesque is marked by his ever-present cigarette and his small physical stature, as well as by his unique comb-over that earned him the affectionate nickname of Ti-Poil, meaning Lil' hair. It has been said more than once that, as he spoke to someone, he gave the feeling that she or he was the most important person in the world. Lévesque was seen as a passionate and emotional public speaker. Those close to him have described him, while quite emotional deep down, as having difficulty expressing his emotions in private, saying that he was comfortable in front of a crowd of thousands, but not with one person.

Missing image
Jean Lesage and Lévesque are drawn into a handshake by Daniel Johnson Sr., in what Lévesque called the most beautiful picture of his collection.

While many Quebec intellectuals (especially sovereigntists) are much inspired by the French philosophy and high culture, Lévesque was a renowned lover of the United States of America (and the English-speaking world). This love brought him to the American troops in the Second World War. While in London, his admiration for Britons grew because of what 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 England every year. He has also stated that, if there had to be one role model for him, it would be American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This is somewhat ironic: Roosevelt's 1942 letter to Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King about Quebecers showed little sympathy to the Quebecois people and its diaspora.

Lévesque was disappointed with what has been called by historians a cold response by the American economic elite to his first speech in New York City as Premier of Quebec, in which he compared Quebec's march towards sovereignty to the American Revolution. His first speech in this function in France was, however, more successful, leading him to a better appreciation of the French intelligentsia and of French culture.


Lévesque was notably portrayed in the television series bearing his name, René Lévesque. A new series is in preparation and is due to come out in 2005.



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Former premier and current PQ leader Bernard Landry honours the memory of René Lévesque upon his statue.
  • There is a time when quiet courage and audacity become for a people at the key moments of its existence the only form of adequate caution. If it does not then accept the calculated risk of the great steps, it can miss its career forever, exactly like the man who is afraid of life.
    • On the plaque in front of his statue, on the hill of the National Assembly of Quebec.
  • If I understood you well, you are saying: until next time. (listen) (watch whole original speech ( (watch English dubbing (
    • Concession speech, .
  • But I have confidence that one day... there's a normal rendez-vous with history that Quebec will hold, and I have confidence that we shall be there, together, to witness it. (listen) (watch whole original speech ( (watch English dubbing (
    • Concession speech, .
  • Question of the 1980 referendum on independence. (read) (listen)


Missing image
René Lévesque speaks.


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

Further reading

  • For an Independent Quebec by René Lévesque (published in the journal Foreign Affairs in July, 1976) [1] (
  • René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power by Graham Fraser

Elections as party leader

He lost the 1970 election and 1973 election, and won the 1976 election and 1981 election, and resigned in 1985.

See also

External links

Preceded by:
Robert Bourassa
Premier of Quebec
Succeeded by:
Pierre-Marc Johnson
Preceded by:
Leader of the Parti Quebecois
Succeeded by:
Pierre-Marc Johnson

Template:End boxes:René Lévesque fr:René Lévesque


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