Remembering Robert Bourassa

He died 10 years ago today, leaving a legacy as one of the most important Quebec premiers of the century

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The Gazette, Monday, October 2, 2006

What I remember most about Robert Bourassa is his sense of humour and his kindness. It is his qualities as a person and as a parent that I retain today, on the 10th anniversary of his death. And as a politician, he was in a class by himself.

There was nothing quite like the body language of Bourassa, rubbing his hands as he was telling a story or a joke. No one ever took more delight in the moral of the story, especially if it made a political point. No one ever had a better understanding of the partisan rules of the game. But with Robert Bourassa it was never personal, always about business. He had many adversaries, but few enemies, in politics. There was a complete absence of malice in him. He loved the game of politics, and no one ever played it better, without rancour and without regret.

All of these attributes came together once when we were sitting in the living room of his home on Maplewood Ave., in Outremont. We were talking about the prospects of his regaining the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party in 1983, when the unmistakable sound of Cole Porter's Night and Day drifted into the room.

"That's Francois, practising," he said, with great pride, of his son, later an award-winning jazz pianist. In the next sentence, he spoke of his daughter, Mimi, then in a teenage equestrian phase. Apart from his parental pride, he was obviously grateful to them and to his wife, Andree Simard Bourassa, for agreeing to his return to politics.

It is the second act of Bourassa's political life that has defined his place in history. In the first act, from 1970 to 1976 as premier of Quebec, he undertook his economic project at James Bay and his cultural project, Bill 22, making French Quebec's official language. Had he retired then, undefeated after two terms, those would have been two significant economic and cultural benchmarks in measuring his premiership.

But it was his rejection by the voters at the age of 43 in 1976, the election of the Parti Quebecois, and his subsequent rehabilitation in the 1980 referendum, that made his story line so compelling. When Claude Ryan lost the 1981 Quebec election, Bourassa, uniquely in Canadian history, "replaced my successor," and subsequently won two more terms as premier in 1985 and 1989, before retiring in 1994.

Altogether, he governed Quebec for nearly 15 years over three decades, from 1970 to 1994. By longevity alone, he is one of the most important Quebec premiers of the 20th century.

The political legacy of any Quebec premier is measured by his economic stewardship and his record as a defender of Quebec's interests in the Canadian federation.

By those standards, according to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who knew him well, Bourassa is "one of the great premiers in the history of Quebec."

Mulroney remembers Bourassa "not only as a colleague, but as a friend" and as a "delightful person to work with." But he wasn't always easy to read. He was principled but also pragmatic. Or as Mulroney puts it: "He was both complicated and transparent."

Bourassa was fond of the quotation that to govern is to choose. Nowhere was that more apparent, for better and for worse, than in his management of the constitutional file in the Meech Lake Accord.

Late in the afternoon of April 30, 1987, the first ministers were making startling progress on Quebec's five-point agenda for signing the 1982 constitution when Bourassa received an urgent message from Quebec City. "I have to take this call," he told his colleagues, "I have a budget leak."

He stepped away for a few minutes, and directed his finance minister, Gerard D. Levesque, to release his budget that evening rather than the following day. The markets were already closed, there was no damage done, he assured Levesque, laughing off his offer to resign. The other first ministers knew the seriousness of a budget leak, and wouldn't have been surprised if he had arranged it as a pretext for leaving the meeting. When he stayed, they were assured he was there to make a deal.

A year and a half later, he chose to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights to override the Supreme Court decision on the predominance and priority of French in the language of signs. He would allow languages other than French inside, but not outside. It was an arrow through the heart of the Meech Lake accord in the rest of the country. Mulroney beseeched him not to do it, but Bourassa chose the interest of Quebec first. Later, when he adopted the essence of the Supreme Court ruling in Bill 86 before leaving office in 1994, it was his way of admitting he had been wrong to invoke the notwithstanding clause.

By his fourth and final term in office, Bourassa had long since won the respect of Quebecers. But it was only after the disclosure that he was stricken with melanoma that he won their affection. And when Quebecers learned that, despite his illness, he had refused to leave his post during the Oka Crisis of 1990, he won their admiration for his courage and class.

The comedian Dominque Michel spoke for the entire province when she wished him well on Radio-Canada's year end Bye Bye special. "Mr. Bourassa, we missed you this year," she said, "but get well soon and we won't miss you next year." His cancer would go into remission for five years, and he lived to dote on his first grandchild, and to play a supporting role in another referendum in 1995.

When he died, and lay in state at the National Assembly, Andree Bourassa stood in a receiving line for hours to shake the hand of every one of the thousands of Quebecers who came to pay tribute.

But in a way, the most remarkable tribute of all came at his state funeral at Notre Dame Basilica. When Mike Harris arrived, accompanied by every living former premier of Ontario - Bob Rae, David Peterson, Frank Miller and Bill Davis - the public in the galleries of the great basilica broke into applause.

And when his coffin was carried into the golden sunlight that October afternoon, the crowd on Place d'Armes also broke into applause. Bourassa, who knew how to read a crowd, would have smiled and rubbed his hands in delight. "Not bad," he would have said, "not bad at all."

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