Obituary: Robert Bourassa

Robert Bourassa played a leading role in modernising the economy and social structure of Quebec. But his indecisiveness and ambiguity about Quebec's role in the Canadian federation were major factors in the revival of the separatist movement and the crisis it currently poses to Canadian unity.

Bourassa was premier and head of the Quebec provincial Liberal Party twice, from 1970 to 1976 and from 1985 until 1993 - both turbulent eras in the relationship between Quebec and the rest of the country. Throughout these periods he walked a tightrope between a Quebec nationalism that could flourish within the broader confines of the Canadian federation and the pressures for an independent state.

Towards the end of his political career, he became a more committed defender and advocate of federalism, committing himself to a package of constitutional reforms known as the Charlottetown Accord that was put to the test of a national referendum in October 1993.

These reforms would have recognised Quebec as a distinct society within Canada with a special responsibility for the protection and promotion of the French language and Quebec culture. It would have also made significant changes to the structure of the Canadian Parliament, changing the upper house from an appointed to an elected body, along the lines of the United States Senate.

But the package was turned down massively in Quebec, and failed to get majority support in the rest of the country. Shortly after the vote, Bourassa, who had already fought off two rounds of the melanoma which finally took his life, announced he would not seek another term as premier and turned over the Quebec Liberal Party and the premiership to Daniel Johnson, who was defeated by the separatist Bloc Quebecois a year later.

Born to a middle-class family in Montreal in 1933, Bourassa initially studied law, and was admitted to the Quebec bar in 1957. He subsequently did graduate studies in economics at Oxford and Harvard. Returning to Canada, he worked as an adviser to the federal government on tax policy and taught at the University of Ottawa. In 1958 he had married Andree Simard, the daughter of a prominent Quebec industrialist and shipbuilder, which gave him the financial freedom to pursue his studies independently and to finance his political career. This began in 1966 when he was elected to the provincial parliament from Mercier, a Montreal suburban riding (constituency).

His first encounter with power began in 1970, when he was the surprise winner of the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party and led it to victory in a provincial election. He was only 36, insecure and inexperienced, and unprepared to deal with escalating violence from a militant branch of the separatist movement.

There had been isolated bombings before, but what became known as the "October Crisis" of 1970 came to a head with the kidnapping of the British trade commissioner James Cross and the murder of one of Bourassa's cabinet ministers, Pierre Laporte. The federal government led by the former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau moved in to declare a form of martial law. Separatists were rounded up and detained briefly without trial and Canadian soldiers and tanks patrolled the streets of Montreal.

Historians have suggested it was an over-reaction, but the federal government was prompted to move so dramatically by its perception of Bourassa's weakness. Calm was restored, Cross was released unharmed, and there has been no political violence since.

But Bourassa's credibility was seriously damaged.

His government implemented reforms in education and healthcare, curtailing the influence of the Roman Catholic church in both fields. But he became embroiled in scandals about patronage and funding, and his government was routed in the 1976 provincial election by the separatist-leaning Parti Quebecois and its charismatic leader Rene Levesque. Bourassa slunk off to Brussels to a university teaching position and to study the structure of the European community as a model for Canada and Quebec.

He came back to Canada to campaign on the winning federalist side in the 1980 Quebec referendum, and three years later easily regained the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party, leading it to victory over the Parti Quebecois in 1985.

In his second term, Bourassa pushed economic development by developing the huge hydro-electric potential in northern Quebec and selling surplus power at a large profit to the New England states. But he could not resolve the linguistic tensions that still bedevil the province, even though he passed controversial legislation enforcing the use of French, parts of which were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as unconstitutional restrictions on the right of free speech.

The Supreme Court had suggested a compromise in Quebec that could have required French to be twice as prominent as any other language on outdoor signs, but the premier dithered between the French-language militants and the moderates.

He decided to use an obscure provision to override the constitution and the court, forcing the removal of English or other languages from all outdoor signs. But that move so angered people in the rest of the country that another attempt at accommodating Quebec's "distinct status" within the constitution, known as the Meech Lake Accord, was defeated.

Perceived by Quebecers as a rejection by the other provinces, the failure to ratify the Meech Lake Accord gave new life to the Quebec separatist movement and led to the current situation with the Parti Quebecois back in power.

Bourassa's ambiguity towards the national question was in tune with a majority of Quebecers and he was a much more popular figure in his second term. There was an outpouring of sympathy when it became known that he had delayed seeking treatment when his cancer was first discovered in summer 1990, because he felt he couldn't be absent during a tense stand- off between Quebec police and Mohawk warriors who had barricaded-off areas around Montreal, claiming aboriginal rights to the land.

His earlier successes in warding off the melanoma and his peripatetic political career had earned him a reputation as a cat with the proverbial nine lives. As one political columnist wrote earlier this week: "It is hard to imagine a Quebec in which Bourassa is not somehow at hand: like a cat, remote and slinky, toying with the political limits of the Quebec psyche with his little cat paws."

Hugh Winsor

Robert Bourassa, politician and economist: born St Pierre Claver, Mercier, Canada 14 July 1933; Leader, Liberal Party of Quebec 1970-77, 1983-93; Prime Minister of Quebec 1970-76, 1985-93; married 1958 Andree Simard (one son, one daughter); died Montreal 2 October 1996.

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