By HUBERT BAUCH, The Gazette - People have said so often that "Le Devoir can’t endure. ... Yet here we are at 100 years and in good health," says publisher Bernard Descôteaux. Photograph by : PIERRE OBENDRAUF, THE GAZETTE, The Gazette
"The name astonished some and made others smile," he said. "The notion of public duty is so weakened that the very name rings strangely to many honest ears."
He went ahead anyway and boldly stated on its first front page that his paper would have a higher purpose than merely selling as many copies as possible. It would seek no less than to "assure the triumph of ideas over appetites and public good over partisan spirit" by "awakening in the people, and particularly the ruling classes, a sense of public duty in all its forms." To that end he pledged that it would "support honest folk and denounce scoundrels," a goodly number of whom, to Bourassa’s mind, were entrenched in the ruling classes.
That first edition hit the Montreal streets on Jan. 10, 1910, a century ago tomorrow, and the paper was true to Bourassa’s word. It didn’t call the premier of the day directly a scoundrel, but in its front page anchor piece scathingly suggested he was out to stifle inquiry in the legislature about a corruption case involving his former Lands Minister and some dodgy real-estate deals. (Shades of today when it’s a case of the premier stonewalling demands for an inquiry into construction industry corruption.)
It seemed in its fledgling years that the skeptics had a point about the paper’s prospects. Three years into publication, it was $40,000 in hock - fairly serious money in those days - and on the verge of folding. But Bourassa managed to round up enough backers devoted to the paper and its ideal to keep it afloat and from there it grew monumentally over the years in prestige, if not so much in size and circulation, into one of Canada’s great newspapers that is held today as a Québécois national treasure.
Its strength lay in the quality of its content, the courage of its convictions, the rigour of its standards and the towering figures whose prose graced its pages, from Bourassa to Gérard Filion to André Laurendeau, Gérard Pelletier, Pierre Laporte and Claude Ryan. Small but influential was the watchword on Le Devoir throughout most of its history. Its circulation rarely topped 40,000 at the best of times and at the current 28,000-and-some is by far the lowest among Montreal dailies, which all sell more than 100,000 a day, up to 250,000 for the tabloid Journal de Montréal.
Under Bourassa, the paper championed Canadian and Quebec nationalism at the dawn of the 20th century, calling for the equality of French and English in the country and the severing of remaining colonial ties with Britain at a time when these were radical, even subversive notions. There was a less glorious period in the 1930s when it indulged the anti-semitic screeds of Lionel Groulx and some of his crypto-fascist cohorts, but the paper redeemed itself in subsequent decades when it alone among Quebec dailies steadfastly denounced the rampant corruption of the Duplessis regime. Under Ryan, who went on to lead the provincial Liberal party, it was a leading voice of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.
In more recent years, Le Devoir has managed to recover from yet another near-death experience to achieve not just sustainability but to actually increase its circulation, albeit modestly, from what it was 20 years ago in a time when mass circulation papers were losing readers in droves to television news and the Internet. Current publisher Bernard Descôteaux said in a recent interview that back in the early 1990s, the paper ran a $2 million deficit - also big money considering the paper’s $13 million revenue at the time.
"We weren’t just on the brink, we were in it. Since then we’ve eliminated the deficit and made a profit for the past five years. Not big profits, but we’ve gained some security."
The esteem in which Le Devoir is held is attested by the the extensive program of tributes to the paper in its coming centennial year. Though he is a frequent target of the paper’s barbs, Premier Jean Charest will preside at a commemorative ceremony on the anniversary tomorrow where a host of Quebec notables will gather to sing Le Devoir’s praises. The same day, Radio-Canada will air two specials devoted to the paper.
During the rest of the year, there will be academic symposiums, museum exhibits of Le Devoir memorabilia, a Le Devoir photo gallery at Place des Arts, a homage to the paper by the National Assembly, a theatrical presentation on the theme of press freedom and an evening of tributes by Québécois artists at the Metropolis club. Canada Post will issue a commemorative envelope designed by the paper’s artistic director and no less than five books on Le Devoir are scheduled for publication during the year.
It remains the province’s only independent daily ; all others are owned by newspaper chains. Another thing that sets it apart from the rest of the local competition, which are purely commercial enterprises, is that Le Devoir is kept in business in part through donations large and small from "friends" of the paper who run from leading divisions of Quebec Inc. like the Mouvement Désjardins, Hydro-Québec and the FTQ Solidarity Fund, to individual readers. The anniversary celebrations next Sunday will be capped by a fundraising dinner.
Descôteaux says Le Devoir’s readership functions as a community. "It’s a community of readers that’s been there for a long time and who support us." He notes that Le Devoir, at $1.25 plus tax, is Montreal’s highest priced paper, even though it’s the slimmest. "They’re ready to pay more because they’re devoted to the paper. And some happily contribute on top of that, even if it’s only $10."
In return, the Le Devoir community demands a quality product. "We’re held to a high standard," said Descôteaux. "Let there be a mistake in a headline and you can be sure the phone will ring with people saying that this is inadmissible in a paper like Le Devoir."
Le Devoir is a serious-minded paper that targets a serious-minded readership. Unlike its mass circulation competitors, its focus is on political, social and financial reportage and coverage of the serious arts. It disdains the frills of mass circulation papers like comics, horoscopes, agony-aunt columns and whole sections on sports. "We decided to be a paper that appeals to a certain niche audience," said Descôteaux. "It hurt us for a time, that we couldn’t have four pages of sports, for instance. But today it’s become our strength."
The paper backed the Yes option in the last Quebec referendum, but Le Devoir is not a mouthpiece for the sovereignty movement, much as some Péquistes would like it to be, said Descôteaux.
"It depends on the circumstances. What we defend is much what Bourassa defended : national duty, the language, the culture. We’re nationalist, that’s clear, but if there’s a new referendum, our position would be based on what we believe is best for Quebec. If there were an interesting proposal from Ottawa or the other provinces, we’d look at it in that light. It’s always what’s best for Quebec’s interests that concerns us."
While it has maintained a sustaining readership, Le Devoir’s influence has waned in recent decades from the days when Claude Ryan was dubbed the Pope of Rue St. Sacrement, a reference to his lofty stature and the paper’s former premises in Old Montreal. Des-
côteaux, publisher since 1999, is a 35-year veteran of the paper and a distinguished journalist in his own right, but no one has ventured to call him the Pope of Rue de Bleury, site of the paper’s current digs.
And that’s fine with him, he says. "Le Devoir is not the work of any one person, it’s the work of a team. It’s a tradition that the publisher incarnates Le Devoir. I want it to be incarnated by the team we have. Our influence stems from our readers, not any personality."
Florian Sauvageau, of Université Laval’s journalism school, agrees the paper’s influence has diminished in latter years, but says it remains more than just another newspaper. "It’s certainly not like before. There’s no more Pope of St. Sacrement. In large part, that’s because the influence of the written press in general has diminished in our day. But it still has a lot of influence among decision makers. It’s always been that way and it still is."
The paper’s centenary is a time for rejoicing, but not for complacency, said Descôteaux. "It signifies a certain accomplishment. People have said so often over the years that Le Devoir can’t endure, that it can’t go on working. Yet here we are at 100 years and in good health. But we’re also saying to ourselves, ’Yes, 100 years, but what about the years before us ?’ "