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.