René Lévesque an “extraordinary Canadian”? Even the suggestion will make many in this country, not to mention legions of purs et durs Quebecers, cringe. Yet throughout his political career—and, indeed, even in his attempts to make Quebec a sovereign state—Lévesque demonstrated what are considered bedrock Canadian values: honesty, centrism, a commitment to democracy and non-violence. With groundbreaking transparency and anti-corruption legislation, Lévesque’s Parti Québécois effectively put an end to a political environment long dominated by graft, favouritism and barely concealed fraud; it has since been mimicked, to varying degrees, in several other provinces and at the federal level. Bill 101, the PQ’s landmark language law that Lévesque’s government ushered into existence in 1977, met with near-unanimous condemnation across the country. Today, language tensions exist largely in the minds of the fringes on both sides, and the wide-scale acceptance of Quebec’s French fact has shown, perversely, how Quebec can assert its will within Canada’s borders.
Lévesque the human being was much like Lévesque the politician: flawed, endearing, hopelessly romantic. He consumed everything—liquor, tobacco, women—with abandon; political strategy was more likely hashed out over all-night games of five-card stud than behind the walls of the National Assembly. Quebecers, even his political enemies, admired him as much for his canny political sense as his distinct lack of pretense. In an excerpt from René Lévesque—in this week’s Maclean’s—Daniel Poliquin, a leading Canadian francophone author, traces the origin of Quebec’s love affair with this frumpy little man with red eyes who trailed smoke and a hangover wherever he went.
To read an excerpt from Extraordinary Canadians: René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin, click here.