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Claude Ryan leads 'No' side to victory

Do you want "a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations"? That was the heart of the question placed before the people of Quebec in the May 20, 1980 referendum. René Lévesque's Parti Québécois was asking Quebecers for a mandate to negotiate "sovereignty-association", an idea that inflamed federalists and separatists alike. CBC Archives looks back at the vote that divided a province and changed a nation.

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Claude Ryan was leader of the Quebec Liberal party from 1978 to 1982 and a cabinet minister in Quebec's National Assembly from 1985 to 1994. But his greatest political victory came in the 1980 referendum on Quebec separation. Ryan's steadfast campaign strategy led to a win for the "No" forces -- a strategy examined the day after the vote in this CBC profile.

Ryan was editor of the influential daily Le Devoir from 1964 to 1978, when he took over leadership of the Quebec Liberals. Despite the referendum victory the Liberals were defeated by the Parti Québécois in the 1981 election, and he resigned as leader the following year. Ryan remained a member of the National Assembly and was minister of education after the Liberals took over the government in 1985. He retired from politics in 1994.
• Born and educated in Montreal, Claude Ryan studied social work at the School of Social Service at the Université de Montreal. His early political involvement included campaigning for the Canadian Commonwealth Federation.
• Ryan worked at Le Devoir as an editorial writer for two years before taking over the editorship.


• While at the paper he won numerous awards, including a National Newspaper Award in 1964. He was named to the Canadian News Hall of Fame in 1968.

• Ryan was often eclipsed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and former premier Robert Bourassa during the referendum campaign. Both disagreed with his campaign style. Ryan often held rallies and meetings late in the evening, by which time it was too late to get exposure on the nightly news. Nevertheless the "No" side won -- almost 60 per cent of Quebecers voted against separation.

• During the campaign Ryan said he didn't believe there should be a post-vote analysis of whether votes originated in English- or French-speaking regions. Quebec premier René Lévesque, campaigning for the "Yes" side, responded: "It would suit Mr. Ryan just fine if we would stop speaking about French-speaking Quebec."


• Lévesque also called Ryan a "hypocrite" when Ryan pointed out that Lévesque had made a distinction between Quebecers of different origins. "It is not discrimination, it is a fact," Lévesque said.
• Ryan interpreted the "No" win as a challenge for a renewed federalism. He told a victory rally, "We want to continue to decide on our future in the past of Canadian federalism. We are proud to be Quebecers... We believe it is possible to be proud to be Quebecers and at the same time to be proud of being Canadian."

• Ryan was a devoted Catholic throughout his life. As a young man he studied for the priesthood but was never ordained. From 1945 to 1962 he was national secretary of L'Action catholique canadienne, an organization for lay Catholics. After his retirement from politics he lectured in a course called "Catholicism and Modern Society" at the Université de Montreal and travelled to other institutions to give lectures from a Catholic perspective.
• Ryan died Feb. 8, 2004, in Montreal.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News Special
Broadcast Date: May 21, 1980
Guest(s): Lise Bissonnette, Claude Ryan, Yves Ryan
Reporter: Don Murray
Duration: 9:06

Last updated: March 28, 2012

Page consulted on May 15, 2014

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