In his last article for this magazine, Maclean’s Ottawa Editor examines the state of separatism in Quebec and dangers facing René Lévesque’s moderate leadership

July 1 1968


In his last article for this magazine, Maclean’s Ottawa Editor examines the state of separatism in Quebec and dangers facing René Lévesque’s moderate leadership

July 1 1968


In his last article for this magazine, Maclean’s Ottawa Editor examines the state of separatism in Quebec and dangers facing René Lévesque’s moderate leadership

TOWARD THE END of a two-hour conversation over lunch, René Lévesque said, “If Pierre wins the next federal election — not this one, the next one — that will probably mean it’s all up with our movement.” When I asked if I could quote him to that effect, he hesitated a moment, then shrugged and said all right, why not?

Indeed, his remark summed up the burden of the conversation: at last the Great Debate is to be brought into the open, a debate not between Quebec and the rest of Canada, but within Quebec itself. Lévesque and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, one-time comrades-in-arms against Maurice Duplessis, have become the champions and spokesmen of the opposing causes. (Like most Quebeckers whether friend or foe, Lévesque took it for granted that Trudeau would win the 1968 election.)

Opponents though they are, the two agree on the meaning of words; their argument is not semantic. They agree that “federalism,” however modified in detail, must be a system not greatly different from what we have now. They agree that the demands of Quebec provincial politicians. Liberal and Union Nationale alike, cannot be met in full or even in large part without dissolving the federal system, and that soothing statements to the contrary are illusion or deliberate deceit. They agree that the issue

is clear-cut and fairly simple to understand:

Do the true interests of French-speaking Canadians lie inside or outside a viable Confederation?

IT’S QUITE WRONG to assume, as many English Canadians do, that Lévesque and Trudeau represent opposite extremes. The extremists on the English side don’t want the status quo, still less the modest adjustment in the provinces’ favor that Trudeau advocates; they want instead to increase federal power. (This is the position of the NDP, among others. National Leader Tommy Douglas recently explained that the “special status for Quebec,” which his party urges, would mean Quebec would be allowed to retain certain powers it has already, which other provinces would cede to Ottawa.)

As for the French extremists, they are farther out than Lévesque ever was. His Mouvement Souveraineté - Association (MSA) is the most moderate of the four separatist groups now operating openly in Quebec, not to mention such underground terrorist gangs as the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). Lévesque himself is a moderate among the moderates. Lately he has been spending his energy and risking his prestige to defend the rights of the English minority in a sovereign Quebec. So far he has won all these trials of strength within the MSA. Whether he can continue to do so is an open question, especially after the proposed merger with Pierre Bourgault’s separatist party, Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance National (RIN).

All things are relative, and inside the RIN Bourgault is also a moderate. After a stiff battle he managed to purge from RIN ranks a Marxist wing led by Mme Andrée Ferretti, who with her angry followers left the RIN’s spring convention to found a new splinter party. Off to the right of the RIN is yet another separatist group, conservative in ideology but radical in its plans for Quebec independence — the Ralliement National (RN) headed by Gilles Grégoire, who used to be deputy leader in parliament of Réal Caouette’s Créditistes.

IN THIS RABBLE of nobodies, has-beens and political embryos, two men stand out. One is Lévesque, still by far the strongest figure in the whole confused independence movement. The other is his nominal lieutenant and actual rival, a 39-year-old Montreal lawyer named François Aquin.

Like Lévesque, Aquin is a member of the Quebec Legislature, and like Lévesque an ex-Liberal. He quit the party even before Lévesque did. flouncing out last July 28 because Liberal Leader Jean Lesage had made some critical remarks about the visit of General de Gaulle.

Even in the MSA he became an extremist from the outset. A colleague said recently, “I really don't know why François joined us, instead of going all the way and joining

the RIN. He could even have gone with Mme Ferretti’s [left wing] group.”

Another MSA member who has known Aquin since college days agreed: “François studied for the priesthood, and as often happens he swung to the other extreme when he changed his mind — became very anti-clerical and very far Left. He admires Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara.”

Whether or not these are accurate judgments of his views on religion and economics, Aquin’s views on the English-speaking minority in Quebec are unmistakable: he would give them nothing, or very little.

“Tax-supported English schools are a privilege, not a right,” he trumpeted at the MSA convention in Montreal in April. “We should not be afraid to change this situation, and have at last a truly French state.”

The motion that “only French-language schools should have state support” was one of a series of motions, amendments and resolutions that were fought all through a stormy afternoon and evening. One stipulated that English schools should be open only to those whose mother tongue was English, not to immigrants of other tongues; furthermore, that even in these schools, at least half the subjects should be taught in French. Another would have denied citizenship and family allowances to immigrants who placed their children in other than French schools.

AQUIN FOUGHT HARD for all these hard-line motions. He is a man of fiery eloquence — a strong, stocky figure with a shock of iron-grey hair that makes him look older than his 39 years, and with a deep, powerful voice which he has under superb control. He drew tumultuous applause.

His opponents in debate fared badly. Most of them were booed, even those who were among the founders of the movement last autumn. The one outstanding exception was the founder René Lévesque.

Twice on that tempestuous day Lévesque took the microphone, before an audience suddenly silent, and like a small and weary Canute commanded the tide to turn. Both times, by what seemed a miracle, it did turn. The men and women who a few minutes before had been cheering Aquin until the rafters shook voted two to one against the measures he had been urging.

It would be pleasant to think Lévesque had changed their minds by sheer force of logic — and indeed, to an English Canadian, his words sounded quite convincing:

“In my humble opinion it is a question of simple justice. A nation is judged by its fairness to minorities. A free Quebec must be a just society, a people serene and selfconfident. The arguments in favor of this amendment are based on an inferiority complex.”

But these words were heard in silence, as was most of his speech. And the sentences that had evident / continued on page 38

continued on page 38

BLAIR FRASER continued from page 10

“We are North Americans first—we’re not a French colony”

impact were those that carried a gently implied threat:

“I ask you for 30 seconds of reflection. After all, my name is attached to this movement.”

He didn’t quite say, but he quite clearly meant, that he could not remain in a party that adopted a posture of injustice. Levesque is still the

MSA’s strongest asset, and whatever their own views may he, the members know it. So they backed him — at least for now.

Not that Lévesque is the only moderate in the MSA, or even the only one with a popular following. One of his most ardent backers is the wellknown comedian Doris Lussier, who

plays Papa Gédéon on Radio-Canada television and in French - language cabarets all over Canada.

Lussier is a remarkable character. Raised in a small village in Beauce County, he was orphaned at three, brought up by various aunts and uncles, educated largely by his own efforts. He would work one year as

a lumberjack, the next year go back to collège classique and, eventually, Laval University. There he met The Most Reverend Georges-Henri Lévesque — no relation to René — the famous Father Lévesque who as Dean of Laval’s School of Social Sciences was perhaps the prime mover of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

“Father Lévesque is morally and materially my real father,” Lussier says now. “All that I am today I owe to him. Of course, we have become rather far from each other — he is a federalist at heart, and so many of his ‘children’ are indépendantistes that I think it pains him. But we are still very close, for all that.”

It was no part of Father Lévesque’s plan to make Lussier a nightclub entertainer. He was to be, and did in fact become, a professor of political science. He also served as Father Lévesque’s personal secretary, and continued in that double capacity for 12 years, from 1946 to 1958. It was only among his students and fellow professors that he was renowned as a mimic (he could take off anybody, including his boss, the reverend dean, with uproarious effect). But it was hardly surprising that eventually he was invited to show these talents in public, playing his Papa Gédéon in The Plouffe Family, a TV series based on the novel by his friend Roger Lemelin.

Now he is rich and famous. “I had no time to spend the money I got, so I had to invest it. I was forced to be a businessman, and became rich in spite of myself.” One of the luxuries he permitted himself, as an ex-professor of politics, was an active part in the Quiet Revolution.

Lussier was a member of the Quebec Liberals’ policy committee from 1960 until last autumn. Then René Lévesque issued his “personal manifesto” for a sovereign Quebec, and Eric Kierans as Quebec Liberal president fought him on the issue and won. On the Saturday evening in October when Lévesque left the Liberal Party, Doris Lussier went with him, sadly but formally removing his Liberal delegate badge and dropping it into an ashtray in the Chateau Frontenac bar, like an American student burning a draft card. Since then, he has been working as earnestly for the independence as he formally did for the awakening of Quebec.

“We’re not trying to make another Cuba here,” he told me at the Montreal convention. “We want to make the sovereignty issue as normal as we can, something to discuss between friends. We are North Americans first — we don’t feel ourselves to be a French colony.”

But he worried about the future. “René’s moral authority is unchallengeable now, but this could change. If his approach fails, if the English reaction is too harsh, even René may be pushed into positions he would rather not accept.”

And if he is, what of it? Could this rather unimpressive party, which was able to rally only 969 members to its first plenary convention in an arena large enough for 8,000, ever do anything serious, no matter how indignant it might become?

It was easy to argue the negative. Fully 80 percent of the members, by

continued on page 40

To the New Men, Canada is alien —not hostile but a threat

the MSA’s own official statement, were white - collar and professional people, the petite bourgeoisie that has been the class base of every ultranationalist movement in Quebec for 200 years.

As a class, it has a poor record for three important qualities — lor concern about underprivileged members

of its own society; for willingness to make any sacrifice for any cause; and for personal fortitude in adversity. The formidable men of Quebec have mainly been rebels against this class and its traditions, even when they have been born members of it; mainly, they have opted for Canada, rather than the sterile “nationalism” of prov-

ince and parish. Up to now, that is.

It was obvious at the MSA convention that this traditional "nationalist” has not disappeared; some members were veritable caricatures of the type, with their purely rhetorical ferocity and their visible lack of the strength to back it up. But it was equally obvious that, this time, a different type

f man is also present. These men — Lévesque and Lussier and their comrades — have admirable records for the very qualities that some predecessors have lacked. They have proved their concern for the underprivileged, their readiness to make sacrifices for a cause. Above all, they have proved their personal courage. They are formidable men, and they are not opting for Canada — not yet, anyway.

Canada to them is alien country, not necessarily hostile but alien. Also, hostile or not. Canada is a threat. Because of Canada’s immigration laws, the French-speaking majority in the Quebec metropolis of Montreal is withering away.

Already, Montreal is only two thirds French-speaking, compared to four fifths for the province as a whole. Among immigrants, of whom Quebec received 45,000 last year, these proportions are exactly reversed — two thirds do not speak French, and even among those who do, many choose to educate their children in English. Now that Quebec’s birth rate has dropped below the national average, and Quebec ranks fifth instead of first among the provinces for size of families, the effect becomes a simple matter of time: within 15 years or so, Montreal will no longer have a Frenchspeaking majority.

Immigration from France cannot reverse the trend. Efforts have been made to bring more Frenchmen in. and they have been remarkably successful — the flow has quadrupled since I960, doubled since 1965 — but it is still only 10.000 a year, less than a quarter of all immigration to Quebec. The new danger is added to others that have always faced French Canada — resources owned by “English” capitalists, English as the dominant language of work, the vast sea of 220 million Anglophones in which Quebec is a tiny eroded island.

Separatists, even the friendliest of them, see no cure for all this within Confederation, and now at last they are led by men who are willing to make sacrifices to protect their identity. They cannot be deterred or defeated by economic arguments alone. Nothing can defeat them but proof that the French identity can survive in Quebec and anywhere else in Canada, whether backed by a majority or not. This is the nub of the great debate that is now beginning in earnest. ★