The voice from the north is harsh, the hands swoop in gesture. He is admonishing the English-speaking minority (13 percent) in French Quebec: “You must have your own ‘revenge of the cradles,’ the same kind of population explosion that enabled French Canadians to hang onto their language and culture in a sea of English.”
It is Quebec Premier René Lévesque, 54, leader of the move to free his province from the rest of Canada, once again on the attack. Early this year it looked as if Lévesque’s political career might be over, the victim of his own Chappaquiddick. He was returning from an evening out with his secretary, Corinne Côté, 26, at 4 a.m. (The premier and his wife have been separated for six years.) Without warning, another driver appeared, frantically waving him away from a panhandler lying in the road. Lévesque swerved in alarm and struck and killed the fallen man. The case made headlines throughout Canada, and Lévesque’s discretion was challenged. But a coroner’s inquest cleared him—his only infraction was driving without glasses—and he was free to resume his bitter national debate with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Trudeau, himself a French Canadian, is a lifelong foe of independence for the six million residents of Quebec—nearly 30 percent of Canada’s entire population. Although Lévesque’s separatist Parti Québéçois was overwhelmingly voted into office last November, the outcome was not actually a vote for independence. That will come only after Lévesque decides the time is ripe for a referendum.
Demanding a sort of political High Noon, Trudeau wants that referendum now. Lévesque is not so eager. “If a vote on independence were held today, we would lose 40 percent to 60 percent,” he concedes, adding, “but the people will come around.”
A lawyer’s son, the separatist leader grew up in the rural Gaspé region of Quebec and recalls “the running battle between French-Canadian kids and English-Canadian kids. They called us pea-soupers.” He studied law at Quebec City’s Laval University, but left when he was expelled from a classroom for smoking.
Fluently bilingual, Lévesque served as a radio correspondent for the U.S. Office of War Information in Europe during World War II. He then covered the Korean war for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and, by the late 1950s, was Quebec’s counterpart to Edward R. Murrow.
Recognizing Lévesque’s popular appeal, the Liberal party appointed him Minister of Natural Resources for the province in 1960. By pushing the nationalization of Quebec’s hydroelectric industry, he earned the nickname “René the Red.” In 1967, when English Canada bitterly criticized Charles de Gaulle for shouting Vive le Québec libre! in Montreal, Lévesque split from the Liberal party. The next year he founded his independence movement, but kept a low profile during separatist terrorism in 1970, during which British diplomat James Cross was held hostage and Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte murdered.
Now facing provincial unemployment of 10.2 percent and a $1 billion deficit, Lévesque, a self-described “social democrat,” proposes a system loosely patterned after Sweden and West Germany. Violence, he declares, “is not an option” for either side. “Trudeau knows he is playing with fire if he tries to keep Quebec by force.”
The two leaders have known each other since the 1950s and were once political and social acquaintances. Now they thoroughly dislike each other. “If Trudeau looks like the only guy who can hold onto Quebec and save Canada from going down the drain,” Lévesque says, “then he’ll survive. But that won’t happen. Independence for Quebec is as inevitable as American independence was 200 years ago.”