TORONTO, NOV. 2 -- The death of former Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, whose political career was marked by his impassioned but unsuccessful crusade for the secession of his French-speaking province from the rest of Canada has closed a chapter in Canadian politics.
But the political legacy of Levesque, who died after a heart attack yesterday at age 65, will help keep alive the issue of Quebec's status within Canada. Levesque's adversaries in his attempt to break up Canada praised him for raising the bitter grievances of Quebeckers to the top of the political agenda. "If it had not been for the movement he led, long overdue reforms would not have taken place in Quebec," said New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent.
Levesque's policies remain a source of conflict, as in the case of his "Charter of the French Language," which, among other provisions, makes it illegal for Quebec's merchants to post outdoor signs in English.
While many paid tribute to Levesque today, his nemesis, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, declined any comment. Trudeau and Levesque began their careers together as part of a group of French-Canadian intellectuals who met around a kitchen table, but their conflicting visions for Quebec and Canada came to dominate national debate for more than a generation.
There was a perpetual clash of style and philosophy between the urbane and aristocratic Trudeau and the blunt, rumpled, chain-smoking Levesque.
Trudeau advocated and, as prime minister, implemented changes to make Canada officially bilingual so that French-Canadians would feel an integral part of the nation. Deeply suspicious of nationalism, he contended that if Quebec seceded it would become an insular, constricted society. Levesque contended that without independence, the French-speaking island of Quebec would in time be swallowed up by English North America, and French-Canadians would be culturally assimilated.
In the 1970s, when Trudeau was prime minister and Levesque Quebec's premier, Levesque described himself as the George Washington of Quebec. Trudeau retorted that he, Trudeau, was the Abraham Lincoln of Canada.
In some respects, the Quebec issue still divides Canadians although passions have waned.
Levesque formed the movement that later became known as the Parti Quebecois. He brought respectability to the burgeoning cause and strongly opposed the violent radicals who had been attracted to it. Although Quebeckers surprised Levesque by awarding his party the provincial government in 1976, they rejected his referendum on Quebec's "sovereignty-association" with Canada four years later.
Despite that defeat, scores of corporate headquarters in Montreal and tens of thousands of English-speaking Quebeckers continued to desert the province. Changes enacted by Levesque's Parti Quebecois helped bring a generation of young Quebeckers into positions in the business and financial worlds from which they previously had been excluded. But a sharply slowed economy was the price. Quebec suffered painfully during the recession and Levesque found himself battling the labor unions over wages and benefits as revenues dwindled.
Militants in his party wanted to continue to press for separation but Levesque lost his lust for the battle. In June 1985 he resigned as leader of the Parti Quebecois, which ended his political career.
In Levesque's last public appearance, a fund-raising dinner, the organizers dissuaded him from leaving early, before Trudeau showed up. After Trudeau arrived, the two shook hands, chatted politely, then Levesque left.