Fragments of a Revolution, Part V: Francization, Quebec Nationalism, and Sovereignty-Association

Part V: René Lévesque – Francization, Quebec Nationalism, and Sovereignty-Association

The exercise of self-determination is absolutely necessary to the maturity of a society which possesses its own identity…If a society which is conscious of its identity, which really feels itself to be a cohesive group, and therefore different from the others, does not go through at least a certain part of its history with the attributes of sovereignty, it will always remain a tainted society. It will be subject to a form of dependence in relation to the colonialism which formed it, and which is in fact preventing it from reaching maturity. Quebec must break this vicious cycle. – 1979[1]

Like Trudeau, René Lévesque had travelled extensively during the 1940s and 1950s,[1] becoming known publically in Quebec as a commentator on the international affairs program Point De Mire.[2] As a public intellectual and a contributor at Cite Libre he strongly opposed the corruption and conservatism of the Duplessis government, hailing its fall as “deliverance to our generation which had been held back for so long”.[3] His liberalism was no less modern than Trudeau’s and his commitment to an activist democratic state as the agent of development and civic solidarity in opposition to clericalism no less pronounced. Conservatism was keeping the province economically backwards. Quebec had been “held back” and needed to find salvation in rattrapage.

Despite the changes that had occurred in Quebec…yesterday’s nationalists were locked into economic conservatism…[looking for] their deliverer [in] Mussolini, Salazar, and De Valera, [and preferring] corporatist representation to democratic election.[4]

In this vein, Lévesque dismissed the nationalism of Duplessis as “a nervous conservatism…part and parcel of the colonized mentality”.[5]

During his tenure as a minister in the Lesage government – as Minister for Hydroelectric Resources and Public Works (1960-1961), Minister for Natural Resources (1961-1965), Minister for Family and Welfare (1965-1966) – Lévesque’s rhetoric acquired progressively deeper nationalist undertones. Breaking with his former colleagues Trudeau, Marchand, and Pelletier, who all travelled to Ottawa to join Lester Pearson’s government in 1965,[6] his economic modernism increasingly emphasized Quebec’s self-assertion from within. The precondition for this self-assertion was self-ownership. Lévesque declared his objectives as Minister for Hydroelectric Resources and Public Works to make every citizen a “shareholder in the exploitation of the immense national wealth of which Quebec is blessed”. Rattrapage required French Canadians to “use the state to pull themselves up from their position of servitude”.[7] As such, measures like nationalization were required to “counter a well-implanted colonial system, the second-class status of the francophone majority, and a systematic remote control of major decisions by Ottawa and the head offices of foreign corporations”.[8]


By the mid-1960s, Lévesque’s socialism had become inextricable from his nationalism. The departure of the likes of Trudeau, Pelletier, and Marchand for Ottawa therefore disturbed him profoundly. Epanouissement was for him an internal phenomenon that implied Quebec’s self-mastery through a nationally oriented democratic socialism; any renewed form of federalism was merely a reaffirmation of the old colonial relationship. This attitude was at least partly shaped by his experiences elsewhere in Canada. As part of its early efforts to secure a foothold among Quebec’s left wing intellectual class the newly formed NDP had offered Lévesque membership, which he declined. Remarking later on the decision, he spoke of feeling increasingly “cut off” from Canada as he came to know it better. Each time he left Quebec he “had the impression of going into a foreign country, where my language was not understood, where my outlook and my way of working seemed ‘foreign’”.[9] As early as 1963 he declared “Canada [is] made up of two nations, not ten provinces…I felt like an Indian leaving his reserve each time I left Quebec”.[10] The pan-Canadian socialism sought for by the NDP was therefore not an adequate alternative to liberal federalism.

The federal government became the principle adversary of Lévesque’s blossoming nationalism. It was a “monster…growing out of all proportion”[11], the quiet revolutionaries who had travelled to Ottawa complicit in its expansion and, by extension, in Quebec’s continued servitude. In his memoirs, published shortly before his death in 1987, Lévesque did not restrain his criticism and disdain for the agents of French Power:

The new Quebec bothered [Anglo Canadians]. It was beginning to make them frightened. [What] was being asked of the ‘French Power’ that had taken over the reigns in Ottawa was that it make the province that was getting a bit too uppity step back into line.[12]

The reality of an anglophone majority in the rest of Canada thus made alternative forms of federalism unpalatable to Lévesque. Quebec’s distinctive character made it more than one province among ten and the efforts undertaken by Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa were dismissed as superficial, foremost among them the Official Languages Act which Lévesque referred to scathingly as “wicket bilingualism”. As long as the character of the rest of Canada remained so predominantly anglophone, the francization of federal offices was an inadequate defence of the French fact.[13] By the end of the 1960s, sovereign independence had become the only recourse for Lévesque’s hardening nationalism. Attempts to advance the policy of “sovereignty association” (a form of independence, which we will return to shortly) within the Quebec Liberal Party were rebuffed by Lesage. The minister who had overseen the nationalization of hydro that had been so central to the Quiet Revolution abandoned the party most synonymous with it and established the Parti Quebecois.[14]

The victory of the PQ in the 1976 Quebec election was the first step towards the new relationship between Quebec and Canada for which Lévesque hoped. In government, it pursued a policy of “francization” – what was, in many respects, the inverse of Trudeau’s bilingualism policy. Bill 101 imposed unilingualism on all Quebec signage[15] and was understood by its architects to be a further step in the decolonization of Quebec. Remarking on its success some years later, Lévesque referred to Bill 101 in this vein:

In Montreal especially…we must never again let the city centre take on that bastard look we tolerated far too long with servile passivity…the policy of francization must be maintained in all important enterprises.[16]

Though the subsequent plans to achieve Sovereignty Association via a referendum were defeated in 1980, it hardly needs saying that the vision at its core did not depart from the national scene. As the genuine and natural outcome of the Quiet Revolution, Lévesque had imagined Quebec entering into a new relationship with Canada in which it “repatriated” control of the key levers of political and economic power.[17] Such measures would complete the decolonization of Quebec and allow it break with the prevailing liberalism of North America and move towards a socio-economic model resembling Swedish social democracy.[18] Nevertheless, Lévesque imagined the newly independent country maintaining a cooperative relationship with its neighbors. It would obtain seats on international bodies like the United Nations and would enter, with Canada and the United States, into continental defence arrangements like NATO and NORAD.[19] It would also keep the Canadian dollar.[20]

Lévesque’s constitutional vision imagined a Canada without Quebec or, perhaps more precisely, a Quebec that was freed from its existing political association with Canada. While French Power had been content to project itself into the federal government, Quebec Nationalism believed emancipation to be incomplete without independence. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Quebecers asserted one vision at the federal level by voting overwhelmingly for Trudeau, and another in their own province by supporting Lévesque.[21]

Fragments of a Revolution so far 

Part I: 1759

Part II: Postwar Quebec – Conservation and Contestation

Part III: The Quiet Revolution

Part IV: Pierre Elliot Trudeau – Federalism, French Power, and Canadian Nationalism


[1] Ibid. 6.

[2] Dufour. 95.

[3] Lévesque (1979). 10.

[4] Ibid. 9.

[5] Lévesque. 180.

[6] English. 416.

[7] Lévesque (1979). 12.

[8] Ibid. 18.

[9] Ibid. 15.

[10] Ibid. 19.

[11] Ibid. 19.

[12] Lévesque. 228-229.

[13] Lévesque (1979). 92.

[14] Lévesque. 217.

[15] Dufour. 95.

[16] Lévesque. 290.

[17] Lévesque (1979). 81.

[18] Ibid. 135.

[19] Ibid. 68-69.

[20] Ibid. 73.

[21] Dufour. 76.

[1] Lévesque (1979). 74.


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