At the local fromagerie here in Montreal the other day my meagre store of French quickly exhausted itself, I think while discussing the desired thickness of the jambon about to be sliced. ‘S’il vous plait,’ I said meekly, ‘parlez-vous anglais?’ The proprietor, a tall, sturdily built man in his mid-fifties, gave me a gimlet-eyed, appraising look, then shrugged: ‘Where are you from?’ Had I said Toronto, I don’t know that he would have spat on the floor and thrown me out but I doubt he’d have continued in English. ‘Je viens de San Francisco,’ I said. And we were off to the races, discussing Quebec cheeses, charcuterie, what have you.

When I arrived here 39 years ago I would say: ‘Je viens de New Jersey.’ This too elicited an excellent response as Quebecers seemed to love nothing more than driving down to the malls in Paramus (Bergen County, my native domain) and shopping their heads off. In general, Quebecers seem to like Americans, in approximate measure to their dislike of Anglophone Canadians. In so far as no other nationality that immediately comes to mind ‘likes’ Americans (even the Irish seem to have gone off us during the George W. Bush era), I find being in Montreal again a most genial circumstance. ‘You must find yourself a French lover and learn the language on the pillow,’ the fromagier told me.

It is election season in Canada, as it was in Quebec the summer I arrived in 1976, in the middle of the Olympics, on a grant to improve my French at McGill, having just completed my teacher training out west in British Columbia. The provincial party then governing Quebec, the Liberals under the hopeless Robert Bourassa, was in terrible shape, not least from revelation after revelation of breathtaking corruption. The Montreal mob under Vito Rizzuto, in alliance with the Canadian Hells Angels, had their hands in everything, not least the pockets of senior provincial and federal politicians. There were so many bank robberies in the years I spent here – from the summer of 1976 to the early winter of 1979 – that the Montreal police initiated an order to ‘shoot to kill’ anyone caught trying to rob a bank. So many bank robbers were presently blasted into oblivion that it seemed for a while as if the shoot-to-kill order included those who were maybe toying with the notion of robbing a bank. The crazy Dubois Brothers from Saint-Henri, all nine of them, were using crowded nightclubs frequented by their ‘competition’ for target practice with automatic weapons. Quebec itself had only recently begun emerging from La Grande Noirceur, the great darkness of the Maurice Duplessis era with its reactionary politics.

It was in this atmosphere that the Parti Québécois led by René Lévesque swept into power in November 1976, on a platform of national sovereignty for Quebec and making French the official language, passing Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, in 1977. Over time the federal courts would modify Bill 101 but Quebec remains a French-speaking province. A referendum on separation from the rest of Canada was held in 1980 and soundly defeated.

The Parti Québécois was a mixed bag but Lévesque was the one of the most captivating and attractive politicians I have observed in my lifetime, matched only by his nemesis in the struggle for Quebec’s sovereignty, the Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Both men came from affluent families, both were educated at the most prestigious Jesuit schools. There the similarities ended. Lévesque – short, squirrely, animated, a chain-smoker who talked out the side of his mouth with a thick Quebec accent – had dropped out of law school, and enlisted as a war correspondent with the US army in Europe during the Second World War. He reported from London during the Blitz and was with the first unit of Americans to reach Dachau. He was later a a correspondent for the CBC’s French news service in Korea and hosted a CBC chat show from 1956-59.

Trudeau was patrician in bearing, the handsomest politician of his generation, something like a robust, athletic-looking Giscard d’Estaing. It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree of self-assurance, imperiousness, even hauteur, with which he presented himself to the public. Before he married Margaret Sinclair, 28 years his junior, he was regarded as one of the most eligible bachelors of the 1960s, courting starlets like Barbra Streisand. They made for an odd, if photogenic couple.

Trudeau and Levesque had a visceral dislike for one another from the start. A friend in common introduced them at a CBC lunch in the mid-1960s. After some ‘Socratic’ back and forth, Lévesque turned to Trudeau. ‘You’re a god-damned intellectual!’ he said with disgust, and stalked off.

Their animosity only blossomed over time and deliciously flavoured their debates over the future of Canada, the best political theatre I have ever witnessed: Trudeau, always measured, rational, immaculately if flamboyantly tailored, usually sporting a boutonnière, arguing for the federation; Lévesque the impassioned, rumpled, chain-smoking, plain-talking, Quebec-style common man, exhorting his followers to redress the historical wrongs inflicted on them, taking Trudeau to task for his Anglo middle name and his mother’s Scottish ancestry.

Everybody won. Quebec is still part of Canada but culturally and linguistically a separate entity, and a thriving one. Montreal, at least for four months a year, is one of the most beautiful and lively cities on earth.

With three months to go to the federal election, the left-leaning New Democratic Party, led by Thomas Mulcair, is ahead in the polls. (It has never formed a government before.) The slick, dismal Tory, Stephen Harper, who’s been in power for ever, is looking vulnerable. The candidate regarded as least likely to be prime minister is Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, at the top of the Liberal ticket. He has nothing on the old man, just the Trudeau name, money and his mother’s good looks.