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Yes, René Lévesque was a great Canadian

How times change. In a move that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, the federal government is giving $750,000 to Espace René-Lévesque, a museum in New Carlisle, Quebec, that honours the memory of the spiritual godfather of Quebec's separatist movement.

Mr. Lévesque, who founded the Parti Québécois and led the Yes side in the first referendum on separation in 1980, is a polarizing figure. The thought of federal dollars being spent to honour his legacy sounds wrong to many people who support Canadian unity.

We understand that, but believe that this relatively small gesture of support for a museum in Mr. Lévesque's hometown in Quebec's Gaspé region is fitting in two important ways.

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It speaks to the healing that has taken place in Canada since the 1980 and 1995 referendums. And it honours a man who died 30 years ago this year and left a legacy as a truly great democrat.

Mr. Lévesque rose to political prominence in the 1960s, during a global era of radical and often violent nationalism. He took Quebec's separatist movement, which was dominated by hardliners and extremists, and gave it to the everyday people of the province. He pursued his objective in the legislature, not in the streets.

Above all, he respected the democratic process. When the No side won the 1980 referendum by a wide margin, he accepted the result and urged Quebeckers to find ways of working with the federal government. When he resigned as PQ leader in 1985, it was partly to protest the party's move toward a more hardline position.

Along the way, he helped to modernize Quebec and Canada, most notably by making Quebec the first province to put strict limits on political donations. He was decades ahead of his time on that score.

Those who think it is wrong for the federal government to contribute to a memorial to him because of his separatism are making a mistake that is all too common in this highly partisan age.

It gains a nation nothing to remain trapped by old arguments and hardened opinions. Mature countries let passions cool, and move forward. Yes, René Lévesque was a diehard separatist, but he was also a liberal democrat. When he fought for what he believed in, he didn't do it with bombs or guns. He tried to win democratically, and he accepted losing democratically. That last part of the story is something Canada should honour every chance it gets.

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