Le Devoir is the only independent large-circulation newspaper in Quebec and one of the few in Canada, in a market dominated by the media conglomerates of Power Corporation's Gesca Limitée (including La Presse) and Quebecor (including Le Journal de Montréal).
Historically Le Devoir was considered Canada's francophone newspaper of record, although in the 21st century it has been challenged for that title by the increased status of competitor La Presse.
Henri Bourassa, a young and promising Liberal Party MP from Montreal, rose to national prominence in 1899 when he resigned his seat in Parliament in protest at the Liberal government's decision to send troops to support the British in the South African War of 1899–1902. Bourassa was opposed to all Canadian participation in British wars and would go on to become a key figure in fighting for an independent Canadian foreign policy. He is considered both a forebear of French Canadian nationalists as well as a Canadian nationalist more generally. He was also an early promoter of the bicultural Anglo-French conception of Canada, and an impassioned advocate for the political and cultural equality of all French Canadians within Confederation, wherever they may reside.
In 1910 he founded Le Devoir as an outlet for his anti-imperialist Ligue nationaliste and to fight for the rights of French Canadians within Confederation. In its maiden edition, published January 10, 1910, Bourassa explained the name ("the duty" in English) and mission of the newspaper thus: "To ensure the triumph of ideas over appetites, of the public good over partisan interests, there is but one means: awake in the people, and above all in the ruling classes, a sense of public duty in all its forms: religious duty, national duty, civic duty."
Bourassa headed the newspaper until August 3, 1932, when he was replaced by Georges Pelletier. After the death of Pelletier in early 1947, the role of editor-in-chief would pass to Gérard Filion, ex-editor of La Terre de chez nous, under whose reign the paper would publish highly controversial critiques of Maurice Duplessis's government in Quebec by journalists and figures such as André Laurendeau. Claude Ryan, a federalist, took the helm in 1964, followed by Jean-Louis Roy in 1980 and Benoit Lauzière in 1986. In 1990 the paper got its first woman editor-in-chief when Lise Bissonnette succeeded Lauzière, firmly establishing the paper's sovereigntist orientation following the federalist years of Ryan and his successors. She would continue on in her post until 1998, with the current editor-in-chief, Bernard Descôteaux, taking over the following year.
While the paper has in recent times becomes associated with the Quebec nationalist movement, it is important to note that Bourassa himself was in fact opposed to the notion of a separate territorial entity for the majority French-speaking province, believing instead in an Anglo-French conception of Canada in which French-speaking Canadians would see their culture recognized as equal and protected and encouraged from coast to coast. Instances of this view can be found in both his campaign for Franco-Ontarian rights as well as his ardent opposition to controversial priest and historian Lionel Groulx in the 1920s following Groulx's musing on the possibility and desirability of a separate Quebec state. This said, the history of Le Devoir would become characterized by varying phases (as well as shades) of French Canadian and later Québécois nationalism, opening its pages in the troubled 1930s to Groulx and his followers, yet seeing a federalist at its helm in 1964 in the form of Claude Ryan, who in 1978 would go on to become leader of the federalist Quebec Liberal Party.
Ideologically, Le Devoir has been a chief voice against military intervention and in favour of pacifism and social democracy, opposing conscription in World War II (see Conscription Crisis of 1944) and endorsing, under federalist Ryan's tenure, the election of René Lévesque's new socialist-inspired Parti Québécois in the 1976 election, despite its platform centred on Québécois nationalism. Once considered a reformist paper, it has recently been associated less with ideas that challenge the status quo of Quebec's economic, political and cultural challenges.
Le Devoir began as several other businesses besides the newspaper. These ventures included a general printer and publishing house, a bookstore, and a travel agency. Trips were initially organized to coincide with Catholic congresses around the world, as well as for "pilgrimages", allowing Quebecois to visit the French diaspora across North America. Such trips included Acadia (1924, 1927), Ontario (1925), and Louisiana (1931). The purpose of the travel venture was, said Napoleon Lafortune, to "extend the 'work' of the newspaper to defend the French language and the Catholic faith, but by other means." The unusual service officially lasted from 1924 to 1947, though it effectively ended at the start of World War II when international civilian travel became very difficult.
Le Devoir has a relatively low circulation of about 34,000 on weekdays and 58,000 on Saturdays. Its financial situation has often been precarious, and recent years are no exception: in 2002, it had revenues of $14,376,530, with a meager profit of $13,524, while the previous year it had made a small loss.
The newspaper's slogan is "Fais ce que dois" (Do what [you] must). "Le Devoir" means "the duty" in French. In 1993 and 1994, following a redesign by Lucie Lacava, a Montreal-based design consultant, the Society for News Design called Le Devoir the world's most beautiful newspaper.
- Henri Bourassa (1910–1932)
- Georges Pelletier (1932–1947)
- Gérard Filion (1947–1963)
- Claude Ryan (1963–1978)
- Jean-Louis Roy (1980–1986)
- Benoît Lauzière (1986–1990)
- Lise Bissonnette (1990–1998)
- Bernard Descôteaux (1999–2016)
- Luce Julien (2016–current)
Notable contributors have included the following.
- Stéphane Baillargeon
- Pierre Bourgault
- Sylvain Cormier
- Gil Courtemanche
- Michel David
- Fabien Deglise
- Jean Dion
- Louis Hamelin
- Chantal Hébert
- Normand Hudon
- Napoléon Lafortune
- Pierre Laporte
- André Laurendeau
- Jean-Marc Léger
- Gilles Marcotte
- Christian Rioux
- Michel Roy
- Paul Sauriol
- Michel Venne