Interview with René Lévesque

Then-Québec premier René Lévesque spoke with Maclean’s Montreal bureau chief Graham Fraser on a late November morning in 1977


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This has been an extraordinary year for René Lévesque. From the shock he gave English-speaking Canadians as he quoted the Declaration of Independence to the Wall Street bankers in January to his recent attempts to get reciprocal agreements from fellow premiers on access to minority language schools, he has been at the focus of public attention across the country. Starting as a broadcaster with the American army during the war, Lévesque had an 18-year career in radio and TV before plunging into politics with the Liberals of Jean Lesage in 1960. He left the Liberals in 1967 to form the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association, which became the basis of the Parti Québécois, founded in 1968. Lévesque lost his seat in the election of 1970 and was defeated again in the Liberal landslide of 1973 before the remarkable PQ victory of November 15, 1976. Lévesque spoke with Maclean's Montreal bureau chief Graham Fraser at ten on a late November morning in the Premier’s spacious office on the 17th floor of the Hydro Quebec building in Montreal. Lévesque is not a "morning person" and the conversation began slowly. But as he drank his coffee and the talk progressed, his gestures became more animated and his expressions more vivid.

Maclean’s: What was the first thing you did when you became premier?

Lévesque: Well, that night I was dead tired because of the celebrations we had. The only thing that I remember was talking to a few of the guys I had been working with for eight or 10 years. We’re all activists, I guess, so immediately the talk was “So, where do we go from here? What should we do in the next few days?” And so I finally kicked everybody out and said: “I know what I’m going to do in the next few hours.” I just slumped down and tried not to think about it, which I managed quickly enough because I had a couple of drinks, and the lights went out. The next morning, I can’t remember much. It was about ten or ten-thirty when I finally managed to get up.

Maclean’s: Looking back on the first year, what has satisfied you the most of the accomplishments?

Lévesque: There are two things: one is that we managed to keep our basic commitments. The other one, which I’m particularly proud of, is the cleaning up as much as possible. Socially, there was a commitment that opened up our eyes to a lot of other things, a very simple commitment about drugs for elderly people. I’ve met too many people, couples especially, when they get old, Jesus, when they get to the fourth week of the month there’s no money left because they’ve got treatments and they need drugs. They’re on prescriptions all the time. But what it opened our eyes to was the absolute necessity of thinking continuously about a few years from now when the number of so-called “golden age” people is going to go up by leaps and bounds and we need, whether it’s in housing or minimum income, you know, a sort of guaranteed income which goes beyond just the bare necessities. In spite of what many people have said, I’m also very pleased with the first months of Bill 101 and the language settlement. But I think the general satisfaction that I feel is that, all told, in the first year you learn the trade if possible as much as possible. You shake down a team including yourself and you try and work on things. I think on the three fronts of building a team, finding out its weaknesses—there are quite a few including my own; I’m rated “B” by The Gazette—and also producing, it’s been generally, I think, a satisfactory year, even economically. I know everybody is or should be discontented with the state of the economy and it’s no use going back to the tired reminder that, after all, the provincial government can’t solve all economic problems. It can’t even solve a major part of them. But what I’m damn proud of is that for the first time in years we’ve got a government that did try and do its patchwork job because seasonally we tried twice. But what I’m really proud of is that this economic team with (Rodrigue) Tremblay and (Bernard) Landry and a few others, plus some top talent in their task forces like (Yves) Bérubé, have come with the first ever pulp and paper survey, because this is one of our most basic industrial sectors, and the first coherent opening up for a policy on asbestos. It ties in with the purchasing policy which we devised also during our first year. If we can stop talking about it and just act on it, it will be easier from now on.

Maclean’s: Have there been any major disappointments?

Lévesque: Well, the disappointment, I think, is pretty much par for the course. Even though I had memories of what government is, I didn’t know it had become that complex and how incredibly tough it is to move the machine. To get the goddamn ideas or conclusions into legislation or administration, and especially to get results, you know, it’s a sort of combination of always being impatient—why isn’t it done?—and yet knowing there isn’t much you can do about it. The second disappointment is the incredible difficulty of making sure you have the right data and the right set of facts. Public administration seems to have one hell of a job of being clear about reality. And that’s why decentralization of some sort is so bloody essential. I’m working on that task force personally the best I can and in what time is available. And obviously we won’t barge into any kind of decentralization tomorrow morning. I think that it’s one of the most important things for the future in any society; it’s the same in Europe, it’s the same in America, I think it’s the same in every country. While things are becoming more and more technical, more complex, those that affect the day-to-day services and even the living of families and people in their communities—like schools, hospitals, road maintenance, like everything that is much better understood by people where they live than by technocrats or bureaucrats—should be sent right back, budgets included and decisions included.

Maclean’s: In other words, you’re looking for the day that you can construct within Quebec the kind of federation that you’re trying to get out of in Canada?

Lévesque: Okay, you’re being humorous and I’m going to try and follow you, but I’ve always said that federalism per se is not something bad. In fact, I’ve always said, and it ties in with what you’ve just said, if you have a melting pot setup or, in other words, a common identity, you know, cemented enough by language or/and tradition in a sort of common outlook like the United States overall, or like West Germany, it can work, and there’s no reason why not, because it means decentralization in a way. Where it runs into trouble is where you try to make different identities work inside the same political framework, especially if there are only two in a majority/minority relationship. It can be the Walloons and the Flemish in Belgium or the Czechs and Slovaks when they get a chance to have their say in Czechoslovakia, or the Ukrainians in the USSR. Why the hell not go to a real confederal system? Well, that’s part of our option.

Maclean’s: I’d like to come back to what a year in power has been like for you personally. You’ve always been a voracious reader. Do you still have the time to read?

Lévesque: Oh yes, I just finished Golda Meir’s autobiography. It’s a wonderful book. I didn’t know much about her, except for her career from outside. You look at her and she looks like Ben-Gurion said, “the only man in my cabinet.” In other words, a tough old bird. And you read the book and she’s something of a poet. It’s incredibly fascinating. I keep on reading because I have to, otherwise you feel starved. And you don’t get new ideas or new perceptions of what’s going on in the world. I’ve always been interested in everything that has to do with history. I’m especially tied to biographies because then you feel that, if it’s a good biography, you get the history of that period. I’ve always liked novels, too. In a sense, a biography is a novel of history, sometimes more fascinating than any novel. But I keep on reading otherwise I’d go nuts. What time do I have? Well, sometimes during the weekends. One of the best ways I've ever known to forget about problems, at least enough to go to sleep, is to read a few dozen pages or if it’s something very interesting sometimes I read right through to three in the morning, which isn’t recommended. But it really empties your mind of files for at least a while.

Maclean’s: You mentioned the doctor’s recommendations. . .

Lévesque: Not so much a doctor’s recommendations as friends and collaborators who say, well, I’m not exactly living the kind of life you should, I suppose.

Maclean’s: Well, how is your health?

Lévesque: I always look as though I’m more or less dying off, especially in the morning. But the way I feel is that I’m at least maintaining, touch wood, till further notice, something which I’ve always had which is a very good recuperative system. You know, I can get along with a minimum of five hours sleep as long as I can sleep around the clock once a week or thereabouts and completely relax for one morning until noon. In power, at least you get this feeling with all of the frustrations that, if you have aims, objectives and convictions that maybe some of it, like this reform of political finances, will leave its permanent mark and a good mark on Quebec. Things like that make you feel that you’re producing, or at least you’re working like hell to produce, and it’s good for your health.

Maclean’s: During the period that you were building a party, you wanted to convey the assumption that once the party won power, you’d get out. You would be the first ambassador to the United States or the first ambassador in London or. . .

Lévesque: Yes, wait until we can name ambassadors.

Maclean’s: Has your schedule changed?

Lévesque: Oh, it’s changed all along the way. I mean, I’ve been in it for 17 years now. In 1960, I remember telling friends that two mandates were enough and we used to talk about that after Roosevelt and the Americans brought in this amendment, which I think makes sense, that the President can only be elected twice. You know, eight years is a lot of years and then you get out; you should be kicked out. Well, it happened with the Lesage government and then I was part of the opposition. The Liberal Party, which didn’t want for love or money to hear about our ideas. It even refused to discuss them. We lost an election in ’70 and I was ready to get out. In fact, I felt good about being a columnist in a popular paper. But then came the October Crisis and I felt that if. . . well, we haven’t found out everything about what went on. But one obvious thing, which is absolutely certain, is that it was a political terrorist operation in answer to a real criminal operation of terrorism. It became a terrorist-political operation, manipulated by (Prime Minister) Trudeau and others. And I got mad like hell because they were obviously trying not only to destabilize Quebec psychologically in a sense, but also, by terrifying people, to destabilize any kind of perspective that we represented. In other words, it was obviously politically aimed at making Quebeckers more frightened, more colonial than ever, which, I don’t know, kind of injected a sort of new life in me because I felt that if I can do anything against that to keep the balance I’m going to do it. And in ’73, for six months I wondered, I let the party decide in a sense because we had left-wing—more or less renewal wing—groups that felt that maybe we should change leadership. And I felt the same way they did. That was the time I came as close as I ever did to just getting back to the trade. I finally persuaded myself because others were pushing also that I make another effort, so we went on to ’76. I’ve never been a planner of my career in a sense of knowing exactly what gives. I was reading Golda Meir, as I told you, and I was fascinated by memories she had of being prodded into the job then trying to get out and finally making up her mind when she was 75. 1 don’t know if I’ll live that long. I don’t see myself going that far.

Maclean’s: Are you close to your family?

Lévesque: Well, as you know, in that field, I’ve had my problems and I don’t live with my family. But I like to see them as often as I can. I was very, very close to the kids when they were growing up, in spite of the political involvement, because they grew up mostly during the years of Lesage, and as much as I could, all the time during weekends and sometimes during the week and at least a few weeks during holidays at Christmas and summer, I always managed to keep close. I think it’s necessary for them and it sure as hell is helpful for you. Growing kids are a stimulation like nothing else. So, I think we were very close. We’re still close, but they’re adults now.

Maclean’s: What are they doing?

Lévesque: Well, there are two boys—two men and one young woman. The eldest boy is close to 30 and he’s a criminal lawyer in Montreal. He’s shaping up as a very good lawyer. In fact, he was a lecturer before the end of his studies in criminal law, then went into practice. The second one—he’s been a newsman, he has his MA in economics. I think he's a natural born writer and he’s now at Le Jour, for a while anyway. And the girl, she’s a ski instructor and assistant director of St. Sauveur. And all of that happened before power. There’s no patronizing here.

Maclean’s: Is your mother still alive?

Lévesque: Oh yeah, she’s still alive, and touch wood, still kicking. She’s had practically all the ailments imaginable and she went blind last year with two cataracts, got her courage up at 80 and had two operations in a row and now she sees again, reads again. It’s like discovering the world all over again.

Maclean’s: A kind of mythology has grown up in English Canada about the kind of relations you had with Prime Minister Trudeau before you were both in politics.

Lévesque: It was never intimate or that close.

Maclean’s: When did you first meet him?

Lévesque: I remember, and I checked with (Ambassador) Gérard Pelletier during the short meeting we had in Paris (in November) before I came back. Gérard came over for breakfast and, as he said, we talked more or less about the price of eggs, but also about a few things that didn’t have to do with the hassles he was involved in on account of my trip. But he told me that he was writing things, you know. That’s one of the things, the reasons I dream about, being an ambassador; there’s lots of leisure. He told me he was writing about things that had to do with the Fifties and the way things started for quite a few guys, including himself. And we reminded each other of that first time I met Trudeau or Trudeau met me or whatever. That was in the cafeteria at CBC when CBC was still on Dorchester street, the old Ford Hotel. I knew Pelletier, and he came in with Trudeau and the talk was about launching this thing called Cité Libre. You know, who would write for it and who would agree with the basic perspectives. I remember Trudeau was as offensive then as he can be now. Hearing Pelletier’s claim that maybe they're going to launch this thing, I said; “Yes, I'm interested, and maybe I could be a sort of stringer for a few things.” And then he looks at you down his nose and says: “Yes, but can you write?” Jesus Christ! That was some way of recruiting collaborators. He could have at least waited until he found out, but anyway he’s that way. He’s a very interesting guy, very cultivated and, you know, open to a lot of ideas since he traveled a lot. But there was always a basic disagreement between us, practically from the word go, and it had to do with this—what kind of nationalism, to use a general word, we stood for. There was much more nuance in (Jean) Marchand and Pelletier who were also part of a group that got together often enough and they were more or less Quebec based. You know, more gut attachment than Trudeau ever had. I’ve reread a few of his things, from way back, not very recently but recently enough when there was talk about a possible federal election this fall. You feel that there is always something a bit contrived, a bit artificial when he speaks or writes about Canada and his federalism. I think, deep down, he feels sort of a world citizen, in a sense. Maybe that explains why he has a sort of semi-presidential attitude about government. But as far as the management is concerned, the House, well, let’s say, at least his government hasn’t been anything to write home about. You look at the so-called principles that he used to have as a progressive, and you look at the results now and wonder where the hell they went out the window.

Maclean’s: I think English Canadians sometimes feel a bit excluded from the debate over Canada’s future. You mentioned your breakfast with Gérard Pelletier, you played poker with Jean Marchand at Laval, you drew up a strikers brief with Gérard Pelletier, you met Trudeau in the Fifties. Isn’t there a danger of greater rancor simply because this was a small group then and is split now?

Lévesque: There is a danger because Quebec is, in a sense, a very compact society. It was part of a normal development of the late Forties, Fifties until let’s say the beginning of the so-called Quiet Revolution in ’60. Quebec was a society where you had what, two (French-language) universities, in Montreal and Quebec. The general trend was still either priest, doctor, lawyer, notary or the small beginnings in the social sciences. So practically everybody that went up to some kind of higher education had to get to know each other, one way or another. This traditional narrowness of elite formation, thank God, has broken up.

Maclean’s: How can you persuade the West that they have something to gain in an association?

Lévesque: I was asked that in Calgary recently and I haven’t found the answer yet. Look, the basic thing is in fact that we propose association for as many political reasons as economic, the main political reason being we don’t feel there is any kind of percentage for anyone in having a sort of isolation which would also isolate the East from Ontario and the rest. Any kind of crazy wall there politically would be more or less like the rupturing of Canada, and more or less incurable, and it doesn’t make much sense because I believe Canada may have staying power. But if Quebec should be very negative about it, if we make a decision about self-government, in that case Canada has had it, or else is in great danger of fracturing. As far as the West is concerned, the way I see it, we have to go back to the basic political argument which is: do they want a country to go on, or not? And now it’s their problem. I think it was (Claude) Ryan during that Liberal convention that they just had in Quebec, who brought up the idea that I’ve brought up quite a few times, about a revamped federalism. I think it’s Ryan, when he was talking about his third option, saying that if it ended up with four or five entities, better balanced than the obviously artificial 10 provinces, there is no reason why a sovereign Quebec in a joint venture of association markets and things like that, couldn't . . . you know, its being right smack there in between two of them. If we end up with four or five entities that are solidly built, and not artificial, there is no reason why it can’t work.

Maclean’s: But isn’t there a danger that emotional lines are going to harden out of the ill will that develops?

Lévesque: Look, if you can find any kind of option for the future that doesn’t present some risk, you’re on a different planet. But one thing I do know, and I have been convinced of that since the middle of the Sixties, and that’s why I became what you call a separatist, is that if we go on in the same structure we have now, we’re running for a fall and for deeper trouble and more poison than facing facts. We should just face the fact that there are two entities here, both with a very deep rooted—in our case that’s for sure—very distinct identity, language, culture, tradition, the land, everything. And there is that national feeling in Quebec. If people don’t see it, it’s because they’re ostriches and they don’t want to see it, including Mr. Trudeau.

Maclean’s: In a number of speeches since the election, you have been trying to lower expectations. I am wondering if you can be sufficiently conservative in an economic front to please the business community.

Lévesque: Well, you know, the business community is made up of people who in a sense are just as much politicians in their own way as the most devious of politicians. Their official attitude, through spokesmen who are as democratic as I’m the Pope, you know, is a state of mind that they don’t particularly like change. And we are a government looking toward change. Business circles, I think, have a sort of gut hatred of change. If they’re reasonably successful or highly successful, they become happy with things as they are. It’s a healthy instinct we have against any kind of change. Well, what is actually happening is that in overall investment Quebec is ahead of the Canadian average. Quebec has been doing as well, or let’s say no worse than, the rest of this, for the moment, godforsaken Canadian economy. We share with the Maritimes a lot of results of the federal system, which has always been Ontario oriented, and now also West oriented, with the Maritimes and Quebec more or less being treated as dependents who should be at least subsidized or placated—winter works and social insurance and things like that.

Maclean’s: Throughout the years, you have been following the press almost to the point of obsession.

Lévesque: Well, it’s probably a professional deformation, I don’t know. Well, frankly, you get mad and then sometimes you feel like laughing. I met a girl the other day, a young lady about 30. She wanted an interview, but just for background. She’s working on a thesis, Masters or something, about information in Canada over the last year. And she said: “I’m finding out the most incredible parallels and contrasts in approaches and emphases and everything else between the English and the French, especially when it has to do with the problem of Quebec and where it goes.” It’s a glaring fact. You look at The Montreal Star; you look at Le Soleil or La Presse when they’re published; you look at Le Devoir in spite of its orientation and you look at The Gazette, and it’s incredible. In approach, in emphasis, there’s always a choice in information. It’s like the two solitudes again. It’s a fact. I’m not obsessed, I’m interested.

Maclean’s: The English community is not only underrepresented in the party and in the government but also in the public service. There is something like, out of 30,000 civil servants, only 318 anglophones.

Lévesque: And I read the same paper you did. What I read during the weekend was that 200 of those 318 were in the provincial police. But that’s been going on for years. There’s one thing that I wouldn’t support and that’s any kind of token percentage. But the problem is that a lot of young English-speaking Quebeckers look toward business. Well let’s face it, there is a very solid control of business establishments on the English side in Quebec. So, they’ve always had much more opening there and easier promotion. They also have the opening toward the federal government, which after all in many ways is more of a paying proposition. It opens up a better perspective of international affairs and things like that. But if there is anything in Quebec that sort of smacks of rejection because they’re not French, that I’d like to know. What more can you do?

Maclean’s: At the meeting in your riding in St. Hubert, a number of people were struck by how apparently ill-briefed you were. I’m thinking specifically of how you were surprised that high-school certificates were being given out in French only. That’s been going on since 1974.

Lévesque: I didn’t know that. Look, I instinctively don’t like this idea of having to legislate about language. I know it’s inevitable, until further notice, which means until Quebec is a normal self-governing society. Then, I don’t know. I hope the future is going to take care of itself in another way because once you’re a normal society, I don’t think you require that kind of legislation. But in the meantime what can we do? We were backed into it, the third government in a row. Did we do a good job or not? We’re going to find out in the wash.

Maclean’s: In the course of our conversation the only non-federal opponent whose name has emerged has been Claude Ryan. Is he now the real leader of the opposition?

Lévesque: Well, it’s true. I didn’t mention Lesage who has also emerged over the last few days. But I don’t know. I honestly thought that Ryan would make up his mind positively trying for the leadership. You know, if you hesitate for five or six weeks, it means the bait is there and you’re so close to swallowing it that you’re painting yourself as a party man. Every time I read a Ryan editorial now, I take it with tongue in cheek because it’s still the Liberal editorial for the morning. How can you help it? And most people feel that way that I’ve talked to, including people who are not friends of ours.

Maclean’s: I reread the book you wrote as you left the Liberal Party in 1967, An Option For Quebec. In the appendix, there was an article by Jean-Marc Léger, in which he said that “only when we have sovereignty will we be able to legislate, make French the official language, the real language.”

Lévesque: He’s right. The real solution to the language problem will have to wait until we get self-government. In the meantime we approximate temporary solutions by legislating.

Maclean’s: Isn’t there a danger that if, from your vantage point, Bill 101 succeeds in its objective, this will be an impediment to your long-term objective of independence?

Lévesque: If one succeeds in something that has to do with identity of a community, with its promotion . . . well, we have a proverb in French: L’appétit vient en mangeant—the more you eat the more appetite you have. I think that anything that is identity building, and is in the process of maturing the community, is eventually just a step along the way. And that’s the way people will see it, if it succeeds. Temporarily there are a lot of unhealthy things that come up or out of a change like that. But on a perspective of a few years, I think we are going to succeed, and it’s going to help us build this identity feeling, this national feeling that Quebec has to build because we’ve been colonial forever. Maybe everybody’s going to be against us, nobody’s going to talk to us any more. If you’re a part of it, it’s part of the general cure of being colonial for too long.

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