My assignment had been simple, seemingly.
It was the end of October 1987. I was the reporter, editor and photographer for a weekly newspaper in Montreal. Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque, both one-time journalists, were slated to attend a benefit event for PEN, the support group for imprisoned writers.
This would be the first time the legendary political rivals found themselves in the same room together since their respective retirements: Trudeau, in 1984, as prime minister of Canada for about 15 years; Levesque, in 1985, after leading the first separatist government in Quebec.
What I remember is a mad scramble around downtown Montreal to find batteries for my camera flash, in vain it turns out, since neither Trudeau nor Levesque had any inclination to be photographed together gripping and grinning.
As I soon learned, that missed photo opportunity was truly regrettable because it was Rene Levesque’s last public appearance. He died two days later, of a heart attack at age 65. (Trudeau died 13 years later.)
The 25th anniversary of Levesque’s passing has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, last weekend’s edition of Quebec’s largest newspaper — owned by the Peladeau family, long-time supporters of Quebec nationalism — produced a 24-page supplement lauding Levesque.
A poll commissioned to commemorate the anniversary found that 64 percent of Quebecers think he was the premier who most influenced the province in the past 50 years. There is certainly no shortage of physical reminders of him. Major city boulevards, parks, a power dam, a river, a riding, a jogging path and even a university in Guineau bear his name.
It might be just coincidence, but the secessionist party Levesque helped create chose this week to announce its agenda for ruling the province. Almost exactly two months ago, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois won a fragile minority government and became the first woman premier of Quebec.
The mood in the Quebec Marois now has the duty to govern is considerably different than the one facing Levesque when he first brought the PQ to power in 1976. At that time, it was clear Levesque and the PQ were intent on not only achieving sovereignty for Quebec through a referendum but also bent on reforms to the political process.
The first order of business, though, was to try to arrest what the PQ saw as the steady erosion of the French language in the province, mostly in Montreal, where the face of the city had taken a decidedly English complexion and business functioned, for the most part, in English.
Bill 101 became what is generally acknowledged to be Levesque and the PQ’s most powerful legacy, establishing the province as a resolutely French-speaking state within a mostly English-speaking Canadian federation.
Unlike Levesque, or Jacques Parizeau when he came to power in 1994, Marois is not blessed with a majority nor much of a mandate to pursue the PQ secessionist agenda.
In the view of respected columnist Chantal Hebert, Marois’s top priority is to “avoid becoming the shortest-serving premier in modern Quebec history” — a record currently held by Levesque’s immediate successor Pierre-Marc Johnson.
Each point in the PQ’s agenda is bound to be vetted, even vetoed, by the combined opposition out of necessity to avoid an abrupt defeat on a vote of non-confidence.
As of this writing, it is expected Marois will outline a programme containing measures to combat corruption in political financing and to tighten or expand aspects of the language law. She may also present an outline for an early budget to deliver on some of the financial promises of the election campaign, from raising mining royalties to boosting taxes on the rich.
The PQ government could be granted a reprieve from a pre-emptive defeat thanks to the fact that the Liberals, who hold only four fewer seats, are embarking on a leadership campaign. The party that held power for the previous nine years won’t have a new chief until March.
Marois, known to have a passion for footwear, observed recently that being the successor to Rene Levesque meant she has “big shoes to fill.”
Given her minority situation, those shoes will be doing some dancing.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.