Rising Voice in Quebec
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Rising Voice in Quebec
Ren Lvesque stirs nationalist passions in Quebec when Radio-Canada goes on strike
In 1959, an electrifying journalist named René Lévesque helped lead a strike at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that evolved into a backdrop for rising French Canadian nationalism.
Popular Quebec broadcaster Ren Lvesque emerged as an electrifying, passionate public speaker during a Radio-Canada producers strike in 1959. Pictured here, Lvesque interviewing Lester B. Pearson in 1955. (National Archives of Canada, PA-117617)
Popular Quebec broadcaster René Lévesque emerged as an electrifying, passionate public speaker during a Radio-Canada producers strike in 1959. Pictured here, Lévesque interviewing Lester B. Pearson in 1955. (National Archives of Canada, PA-117617)

On the evening of December 29, 1958, when Quebecers turned on their television sets they found nothing but blank screens; the Radio-Canada producers had gone on strike.

Seventy-four producers were involved, seeking the basic goal of union recognition and the right to bargain collectively with their employer. Popular Radio-Canada broadcaster, René Lévesque was not on strike but he fully supported the producers cause.

When the strike began, the producers were convinced it would last no more than a few hours. Surely, they reasoned, given the immense popularity of the programs they produced, it would not be allowed to drag on.

But the producers at CBCs English network, whom the strikers had counted on for support, did not see it as their fight and continued to work.

For English producers like Erich Koch, French CBC was a distant, unrelated world.

"We had no feeling, no thought, that they were colleagues. The world was divided into the English and the French."

The strikers also believed that the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker would respond to public pressure and force Radio-Canadas managers to settle quickly.

Again, they were mistaken; Ottawa refused to get involved. The strike began to assume a political dimension. A labour dispute was becoming a cultural battleground. André Laurendeau, publisher of influential French paper Le Devoir, saw the great dangers ahead.

"Once again we are faced with the tragedy of the French-Canadian milieu which is not the master of its own institutions and which, in times of crisis, does not find beyond its own members the solidarity on which the unity of Canada should rest. It would be unhealthy to maintain Quebec much longer in this atmosphere. "

Within a month, the strike had become a rallying point for Quebecers, especially the intelligentsia. Fifteen hundred demonstrators marched on Ottawa to demand a resolution to the strike. They were joined by Lévesque, lawyer and activist Pierre Trudeau, and journalists Jeanne Sauvé and Pierre Bourgault.

There they meet with Labour Minister Michael Starr. The meeting was a revelation for Lévesque.

"Starr didnt even know what we were talking about. They hadnt really noticed it in Ottawa. It was just the French network of the CBC which was shut down. So we came back with nothing. And we kept telling ourselves 'If the English network in Toronto shut down, it would take less than 24 hours before all of Parliament would be mobilized, the government would step in, use the army if needed, to set things right.'" 

The strike continued in the early months of 1960. Public sentiment was galvanised and large gatherings and demonstrations were held in downtown Montreal. And Lévesque emerged as an electrifying, passionate public speaker.

At the time, Lévesque was one of the most influential TV commentators in Quebec. He had joined Radio-Canada in 1946 and in 1956 he became host of the popular TV news show "Point de mire."

At one demonstration, the strike turned violent. Police on horseback charged the crowd and arrested some of the demonstrators including Lévesque.

After 68 days, the producers finally won the right to organize and bargain collectively. But that was the least of the strikes significance; for those involved, it had thrown the gulf between French- and English--speaking Canadians into sharp relief.

For Lévesque, the harsh political comments he had made during the strike effectively ended his broadcasting career. "Point de mire" was not renewed that autumn.

But the strike did represent a new birth of sorts for Lévesque. Until then, international politics had been Lévesque's passion. Now, for the first time, he looked closer to home.

"I had never really felt like a federalist but neither did I feel anti-federalist, until that moment."

Shortly after the strike, Lévesque joined the Quebec Liberal Party and was elected a member of the Quebec National Assembly in 1960. The rising star in Quebec politics founded the separatist Parti Québécois in 1968.

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