Le Devoir, the Montreal newspaper about ideas -- take note, important ideas about Canada -- celebrated its 100th birthday Jan. 10. Not well recognized outside Quebec, the French language daily was founded by the political leader, and journalist Henri Bourassa. Bourassa was the man who made the case for Canadian independence from Britain and its empire, thus becoming the patron saint of Canadian nationalists, you might say, except ... Le Devoir was not founded to urge Canadians to stand on their two feet.
The battle the militant Roman Catholic Bourassa wanted to win was for the French language, and its accompanying culture. That battle is still going on, and the Le Devoir is still fighting it. Bourassa wanted to awaken the sense of public "duty" (le devoir) in the population: national duty, religious duty and civic duty.
Small in circulation, some 30,000 copies during the week, Le Devoir has been quick to champion a cause, and ready for the ensuing combat, as a participant, and a host, in the debates that have defined Quebec. While Editor Bourassa set out what became the basis for Canadian foreign policy, and minority language rights, and more; all the while, Le Devoir was birthing Quebec nationalism in its pages.
Bourassa has had some worthy successors, most significantly André Laurendeau, who seemingly alone, sniffed out the political clashes to come as Canada outside Quebec ignored the mighty stirrings that led to the election of the Parti Québeçois, two referendums, and that explain the strong presence of the Bloc Québecois in today's parliament (or would if it were not shut down!). The Laurendeau Dunton Royal commission, better known as the B and B commission (for Bilingualism and Biculturalism) was created by Prime Minister Lester Pearson in the 1960s, as a result of his columns.
Le Devoir readers today favour the weekend edition, rich in book reviews, extensive cultural coverage, and significant commentators. Unlike, say The Globe and Mail, which features "personalities," especially on Saturday, Le Devoir relies on outside experts. Knowledgeable contributors include academics, film makers, novelists, scientists, medical professionals, and yes, top journalists, such as Denise Bombardier. Her Saturday column about the 100th anniversary begins, quoting her aunt: "my niece does not work, she reads," and goes on to describe what it means to be part of a daily intellectual newspaper. At best it means influencing those with influence, writes Bombardier. Against poor odds, it means figuring out how to survive by your wits, in a world not hospitable to intellectuals (even in Quebec).
Le Devoir lives on through its political coverage. Readers of Le Devoir know minorities live and die through politics. Its small Ottawa bureau, staffed in recent years by Manon Cornellier, and Hélène Buzetti (current president of the Canadian parliamentary press gallery) does very admirable work without the resources available to Radio-Canada, or the chain newspapers.
Editorially, today, under Director, and one time Ottawa bureau staffer, Bernard Descôteaux. Le Devoir supports Quebec independence, or sovereignty-association. This has not always been the case. Especially angered by Le Devoir's opposition to its platform, in 1974, Parti Québeçois stalwarts René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau founded a daily, Le Jour, to compete with it, which it did, for over two years, before it failed, financially. Three months later the PQ (five per cent owners of the paper) took power for the first time.
The Le Devoir editor who refused to support the PQ (he also opposed Pierre Trudeau on the constitution, working to subvert the Victoria Charter agreed to by the provinces including Quebec in 1971) Claude Ryan, entered provincial politics and eventually became Liberal leader.
Le Devoir faces all the challenges other newspapers around the world are facing in the Internet age. Its recent Internet facelift does not seem to be what is needed to compete in cyberspace with the world. But, it has a significant heritage, its long-standing independence: it has no party line, or controlling ownership.
In an interesting aside in a lively debate about the Canadian media, Toronto Star Publisher, former Globe and Mail Managing Editor and ex-head of CBC News, John Cruickshank responding to critical comments by rabble.ca founder Judy Rebick, described the Globe as consciously catering to MOPES (managers, owners, professionals and entrepreneurs). He maintained the Star had a mandate to love the city, the country and promote social justice.
As a newspaper, Le Devoir has the advantage of never having been about "delivering an audience to advertisers." It has always been about promoting ideas or debate, and that gives it a role, and an identity. What will decide it fate is whether or not it understands it readership well enough to be able to speak to what it cares about, and get it to read about what Le Devoir thinks is important.
Le Devoir belongs to its readership, and its larger community. That is certainly worth celebrating. Here is to the next one hundred years. Bonne Fête Le Devoir!
Duncan Cameron writes from France.
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