CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 13 . . . . March 4, 2005
René Lévesque was arguably one of the most interesting Canadian politicians of the last 50 years. This book tells the story of his life from his birth in 1922 in the Gaspé region of Quebec to his death sixty-five years later in Montreal in 1985. In the process, it chronicles the early years of the Parti Québecois, which Lévesque founded in 1968, and the movement for sovereignty association, or a new relationship between Québec and Canada. The book is not as interesting as one would expect and does not do justice to Lévesque's achievements or to his magnetic personality.
René Lévesque was originally written in French by Marguerite Paulin who teaches at McGill University and also produces and hosts a radio program. She is also the author of Félix Leclerc, Louis-Joseph Papineau and Maurice Duplessis. This work was translated into English by Jonathan Kaplansky who has translated numerous other books.
There are a number of serious errors in René Lévesque. One is the reference to Lévesque as Québec's head-of-state. As premier, he was the head of government. Québec is not a state, and the Queen is Canada's head-of-state. A similar error is made when discussing Lévesque's political foe, Pierre Trudeau, who Paulin writes "prior to his election as Canada's head-of-state...was unafraid of the sovereigntists." As well as Paulin’s calling him head-of-state, readers will likely think that Trudeau was elected Prime Minister. He wasn't. He was appointed by the Governor General, representing Queen Elizabeth. Prime Ministers need not be elected and are appointed by the Crown whether or not they have first been elected to Parliament. John Turner, for example, was appointed Prime Minister in 1984 without having a seat in Parliament.
Another error is made when discussing former Québec premier, Maurice Duplessis, who is described as a leader who "reigned unopposed." He didn't reign; he governed. While such mistakes are often made in the media, they should not be included in a book meant for young readers who will accept what they read and perhaps never know the correct facts about Canada's political system.
Paulin also needs to be more precise in how she states things. Former American President, Harry Truman, for example is said to have "dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki." Young readers might take this literally. Lévesque is said to have joined the American army in 1944 as a war correspondent "to escape mobilization." This wording is confusing. She should have used the word “conscription” instead, which more accurately describes what was expected to happen. The Canadian army had mobilized some years before.
Some of Paulin's phrasing may be hard for the intended audience to understand. During the Korean War, for example, Lévesque "gathered testimonies of actors in a play without any deus ex machina to come to the rescue.. A footnote to explain the meaning of deus ex machina would have been wise.
The story is told quickly, occasionally without enough facts being given. In 1940, for example, Lévesque was expelled from the College Saint-Charles-Garnier. All Paulin says is that he had average grades and was nervous and undisciplined, hardly good reasons for expelling a student. The reader is left wondering what misdemeanor Lévesque committed. A similar example concerns Duplessis. "Duplessis-type methods of persuasion" and "questionable tactics were used". A few examples of such tactics should have been included so students could learn more about the seamy side of politics. Later, bribery is mentioned, but all too briefly.
There is not enough background information in René Lévesque for the book to be of much value as a teaching tool. Mention is made of events and people young readers would know nothing about. This is rectified somewhat in the chronology at the end of the book, but footnotes would have been a better alternative.
In addition to the chronology of Lévesque's life, side-by-side with Canadian and world events that occurred at the same time, René Lévesque has a bibliography, an index, and a few black and white photos. The index gives page references in the text proper and in the chronology. These are not always accurate, a problem that can be frustrating. Manic Dam, for example (for which no information is given), is listed in the index as being in mentioned in the chronology; it isn't. The photos are spread throughout the book but are not necessary. They look like they came from a scrapbook and serve little purpose. The excellent coloured illustration on the cover is enough to show what Lévesque looked like.
Thomas F. Chambers is a retired college teacher living in North Bay, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.