Jacques Hébert, journalist, travel writer, publisher, Senator (born 21 June 1923 in Montreal, QC; died 6 December 2007 in Montreal). Jacques Hébert was a crusading Quebec journalist and a trailblazing book publisher before and during the Quiet Revolution. He founded Canada World Youth, an exchange program dedicated to world peace, and co-founded Katimavik, a youth program offering volunteer positions across the country. As a member of the Senate, Hébert held a 21-day fast to protest the government’s cancellation of funding for Katimavik. His travels took him to over 130 countries; notably, he visited the People’s Republic of China in 1960 with longtime friend Pierre Trudeau. Hébert was also a noted critic of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis and a federalist who scorned Quebec nationalism. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978.
Jacques Hébert was one of six children of Denise (née St-Onge) and Dr. Louis-Philippe Hébert. Dr. Hébert was a member of Montreal’s consular corps; he served as consul for Guatemala for nearly 30 years and received the Order of Quetzal from the Central American republic in 1961.
Jacques Hébert attended Collège Sainte-Marie, a Jesuit boarding school. He was expelled from l’École des hautes études commerciales de Montréal (now HEC Montréal) and then went to Saint Dunstan’s University (now the University of Prince Edward Island) in Charlottetown, PEI. He learned English at Saint Dunstan, as had his father before him.
As a young man, Hébert financed his travels by working as a roving correspondent for the Montreal-based French-language daily Le Devoir. In 1950, he embarked on a year-long global journey with friend Dr. Jean Phaneuf aboard a jeep named Alouette. He described his adventures in several travel books in French. The first of these told of a 14-month journey along the Pan-American Highway through Central and South America to Patagonia.
The best known of Hébert’s travelogues, co-written with Pierre Trudeau, recounted their 1960 journey to the People’s Republic of China, during which they met Mao Tse-tung. An English translation, Two Innocents in Red China, was published in 1968, the year Trudeau became Liberal leader and prime minister. Hébert visited more than 130 countries in his lifetime.
Journalist and Publisher
Hébert earned a reputation as a crusading journalist for his coverage of the trial of Wilbert Coffin. The Gaspé prospector was convicted in 1953 and hanged three years later for the murder of an American tourist after three bodies were found in the woods. Coffin did not testify at trial and no witnesses were called in his defence. The case was a cause célèbre, as the Quebec government was accused of pressuring police and the Crown for a quick conviction to protect the tourism industry.
Hébert wrote three books in French denouncing the verdict while depicting Coffin as a scapegoat. Two of these were translated into English — I Accuse the Assassins of Coffin (1964) and The Coffin Affair (1982). In 1964, the Quebec government appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the case. It determined Coffin had received a fair trial. Earlier, Quebec’s deputy attorney general described Hébert’s book as “despicable and wicked.” Hébert spent three days in jail on a contempt of court charge that was later overturned.
In 1954, Hébert launched Vrai, a muckraking weekly newspaper that exposed corruption at Montreal City Hall, as well as the misdeeds of Quebec’s Union Nationale government under Premier Maurice Duplessis. In 1958, he joined the editorial board of Cité libre, a magazine written by Quebec intellectuals opposed to Duplessis.
Hébert founded two publishing houses: Les Éditions de l’Homme in 1958 and Les Éditions du Jour in 1961. (See also Small Presses in French; French-Language Book Publishing.) They specialized in inexpensive, mass-market paperback books. As well as his own books on the Coffin case, Hébert published such works as a political essay by a Quebec separatist (Pourquoi Je Suis Séparatiste, by Marcel Chaput, translated into English as Why I Am a Separatist) and Pierre Laporte’s critical biography of Duplessis. He also published Les Insolences du Frère Untel, an eloquent and incisive critique of the education system in Quebec. The book, written by Jean-Paul Desbiens, a Marist brother writing under a pseudonym, was a sensation. It sold more than 100,000 copies, and led to major educational reforms in the province. It is regarded as a key work of the Quiet Revolution. Other authors whose early works were published by Hébert include Roch Carrier, Marie-Claire Blais and Michel Tremblay.
Hébert was a host and scriptwriter for public affairs programs at Radio-Canada from 1962 to 1970. From 1971 to 1981, he served as a commissioner with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
In 1979, Hébert was named a co-chairman with Toronto composer Louis Applebaum of an 18-member panel serving as the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee. After holding public hearings across Canada, the Applebaum-Hébert Committee released a 380-page report three years later. It argued that Canadian cultural institutions were imperilled and offered 101 recommendations; these included tax breaks for artists and an overhaul of both the CBC and the National Film Board.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau named Hébert to the Senate in 1983. He sat as a Liberal representing Wellington division, which includes the Eastern Townships of Quebec. He retired from the Upper House fifteen years later, on his 75th birthday. He had served as chief government whip and as opposition whip.
Canada World Youth and Katimavik
Inspired by his own experiences as a traveller, Jacques Hébert founded Canada World Youth in 1971. It offers young people a chance to take part in international educational programs. The first cohort were sent to Cameroon, Malaysia, Mexico, Tunisia and Yugoslavia to work on development projects.
In 1977, Hébert co-founded Katimavik, a youth service program designed to foster civic engagement. About 1,100 participants per year spent nine months with a small group of other youth learning leadership skills and a second language while tackling community projects across Canada.
Federal funding for the program was withdrawn by the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney in 1986. Hébert, by that time a 62-year-old Senator, conducted a hunger strike while using a sleeping bag on the marble floor of the foyer of the Senate chamber. He consumed only mineral water for three weeks, during which he was visited by friends and allies. He ended his fast when a non-profit private committee organized by Jean Chrétien agreed to try to continue the program.
Hébert was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978 for his role as founding president of Canada World Youth and for his involvement in other social and cultural movements. He received the Lewis Perinbam Award for International Development in 1995 for founding Canada World Youth; it inspired the creation of similar programs in Sweden and the Netherlands. The Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians awarded Hébert a Distinguished Service Award in 2007 for his contributions to promoting an understanding of Canada’s parliamentary traditions.