Journalist, writer, union militant, politician, and diplomat; Gérard Pelletier was a man with a profound social commitment, and a great humanitarian vehemently opposed to social injustice.
Born in Victoriaville on June 21st, 1919, Pelletier was only nine years old in 1928, when his self-taught father, stationmaster Achille Pelletier, died of cancer. As a youth, he particularly enjoyed discussions with his teachers at the Nicolet Seminary. He then went on to Mont-Laurier College, before entering the Université de Montréal.
His involvement with the Jeunesse étudiante catholique from 1939 to 1943 led to his becoming secretary general of the movement. At the time, he sensed a need for religious and social commitment, and fought for enlightened Christianity, and against nationalism. This stance shaped the nature of his future social involvement.
In 1943, he married Alexandrine Leduc, with whom he had four children: Anne-Marie, Louise, Jean, and Andrée.
Stationed in Geneva from 1945 to 1947, he became field secretary of the World Student Relief organization, which helped needy war victims. From 1945, he travelled extensively in South America and Europe, where he spent almost 2 years. He turned down a position with UNESCO, and returned to Montréal in 1947.
When he returned, he and his wife co-authored scripts for two Radio-Canada programs, Radio-Parents
and Affaires de famille
, while he rose to prominence working as a reporter for Le Devoir from 1947 to 1950. Assigned to labour relations, he became a defender of workers’ rights, and developed ties and affinities with the union world during the major conflict that turned out to be a defining moment for unionism: the Asbestos strike
. During that period, he developed closer relations with Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Marchand, with whom he later entered federal politics.
In 1950, Pelletier and Trudeau founded the progressive journal Cité libre
, a secular, anticlerical publication whose modern views broke with the conservative values of French-Canadian society of the 1950s. He used this medium to voice his social concerns and to criticize the elite who were running Québec.
He was a strong opponent of the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis, whom he considered to be anti-democratic.
From 1950 to1961, he managed and became editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Le Travail, the official voice of the CCTC (now the CSN). From 1961 to 1965, he worked as editor-in-chief of La Presse, whose management did not particularly appreciate the radical positions that he took.
In 1965, Pelletier entered federal politics alongside Marchand and Trudeau. Dubbed “The Three Wise Men”, they symbolized the new French power in Ottawa. They opposed the rise of separatism, and carried the torch of a renewed federalism. Pelletier helped to develop a federal policy aimed at resolving the crisis in which relations between Québec and Ottawa were embroiled under Trudeau’s Liberal government. Pelletier served as Secretary of State from 1968 to 1972, and was responsible for the Official Languages Act. As Minister of Communications from 1972 to 1975, he introduced the concept of Canadian content to offset American influence.
In 1978, Pelletier was named a Companion of the Order of Canada in recognition of his service to the country. He served as Ambassador to France from 1975 to 1981, and then Ambassador to the United Nations from 1981 to 1984.
Always drawn to social commitment at the global level, he founded the Conseil des relations internationales de Montréal (CORIM), and also chaired CECI (Canadian Centre for International Studies and Cooperation), a non-government organization that brought him full-circle, back to the activism of his younger days, when he helped student victims of war. In 1997, under the auspices of this organization, friends of the late Pelletier couple set up the Alec et Gérard-Pelletier Fund, dedicated to projects in communication, the development of democracy, and the economic and social advancement of women in developing countries.
A man of conviction, Pelletier did not enter politics because of political ambitions, but mainly in order to advance his social causes. An intellectual warrior, he was a key player in a significant historical period that reshaped French-Canadian society.