(Photo by Jean-Yves Bruel/Library et Archives Canada/4073590)
Robert Bourassa, premier of Québec (1970–1976 and 1985–1994), politician, lawyer, economist (born 14 July 1933 in Montréal, QC; died 2 October 1996 in Montréal). The youngest premier in Québec's history, Bourassa was condemned by federalists for losing the reins of government to the separatist Parti Québécois. Nine years later, he staged one of Canada's most memorable political comebacks, returning as Liberal premier to guide his province through the tumultuous debates over the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords.
Bourassa was born into a working-class family in Montréal's heavily-francophone east end, the son of Aubert Bourassa and Adrienne Courville. He distinguished himself as a bright student at both Brébeuf College and later at the University of Montréal, where he was awarded the Governor General's Medal in 1956. He became a lawyer the following year, then studied economics and political science at Oxford and financial law at Harvard, before returning to Canada in 1960.
Over the next decade Bourassa taught economics, taxation and public finance at universities in Ottawa and Montréal, and served as an economics advisor to the federal Department of Finance. He was lured away from Ottawa by friends in the Liberal Party of Québec, under whose banner he won a seat in the National Assembly in 1966. Four years later, in spite of his youth, he was chosen to succeed Jean Lesage as the party's leader.
First Premiership, 1970–1976
The Liberals won a majority victory in the April 1970 election and Bourassa, age 36, became the youngest premier in the province's history. Events would not be kind to his government.
Only months after taking office, Bourassa was faced with the October Crisis, with its terror kidnappings — and the subsequent murder of his Labour Minister Pierre Laporte — by the Front de Libération du Québec. Bourassa asked Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to intervene. The federal government invoked the War Measures Act, sent soldiers into the streets of Montréal, and rounded up hundreds of people for questioning. To many, Bourassa appeared weak, and he was heavily criticized for his handling of the crisis, but he insisted the troops were necessary to maintain confidence in his government.
Once the crisis was behind him, Bourassa opened work on the James Bay hydroelectric megaproject (North America's largest power-generating site), building a series of dams and spillways and tapping the energy potential of a vast area of northern Québec. Despite its economic benefits, the project ignited the ire of Aboriginal people and other critics, who attacked the project for its heavy impact on the environment and on communities in the area.
In spite of the many challenges of his first term, Bourassa was re-elected with a landslide in 1973, winning 102 of 110 legislature seats. Once again his government ignited controversy, this time with Bill 22 — making French the sole official language of Québec, placing restrictions on English language schooling and banning the use of English on signs. The law — parts of which were subsequently struck down as unconstitutional by the courts — outraged millions of anglophone Québeckers and marked the beginning of a long English-speaking exodus from the province.
By 1976 the Liberal government had become tired and plagued by scandal and allegations of nepotism and corruption. Bourassa lost the election that year to René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois — which formed the province's first openly-separatist government. Bourassa also lost his own legislature seat in the election. Described by some as "the most hated man in Québec," he exiled himself for nine years into academic obscurity, spending much of that time overseas.
Second Premiership, 1985–1994
In 1980 Bourassa returned to Québec to support the "non" side during the first sovereignty referendum campaign. Three years later he was re-elected leader of the Liberals, replacing Claude Ryan. Although he personally failed to gain a seat in the provincial election of 1985, Bourassa led his party to a sweeping victory over the Parti Québécois. His return to power remains one of the most extraordinary political comebacks in modern Canadian history.
Bourassa was subsequently elected in the riding of St Laurent, and took a seat in the National Assembly. His remaining years as premier were dominated by the constitutional debate over Québec's place in Canada. Bourassa walked a fine line, calling himself a federalist but being careful not to alienate nationalist Québecers, and forcefully telling English Canada that the status quo of Confederation was unacceptable.
He was instrumental in negotiating the terms of the Meech Lake Accord with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1987 — an effort to win Québec's consent to the revised Constitution, repatriated from Britain in 1982 without the formal approval of the Québec government. The Accord would have granted Quebec the somewhat-vague but constitutionally-entrenched status of a "distinct society" within Canada. In return for this and other measures, Bourassa would endorse the Constitution.
When the national political consensus on the Meech Lake Accord began to disintegrate in 1988, however, separatist sentiments revived, and Bourassa issued his own ominous warning: "The Meech Lake Accord was a unique chance for Canada," he said. "If it is accepted, Canada will be and could be a great country. If it's rejected, it's hard to predict what will be the future."
The Accord ultimately failed, allowing the Parti Québécois to make gains, but not enough to defeat Bourassa's Liberals in the 1989 provincial election. The Accord's demise also led to the emergence of a new separatist party at the federal level, the Bloc Québécois. In response, Bourassa increased his own nationalist rhetoric, refusing to attend further First Ministers' conferences, and promising to hold a referendum on sovereignty if acceptable constitutional proposals were not offered by the rest of Canada before the summer of 1992.
Bourassa finally returned to a First Ministers' meeting in August 1992. He agreed to relent on the demands of some premiers for a reformed Senate, in return for a guarantee for Québec of 25 per cent representation in the House of Commons. That led to a new constitutional proposal between Mulroney, Bourassa and the other premiers, the Charlottetown Accord, which was rejected by Canadians, and by Quebecers, in a pair of referendums in 1992.
The following year, Bourassa underwent radical treatment for skin cancer and on 14 September 1993, announced that he would resign following a Liberal leadership convention to be held in 1994.
Bourassa's losing battle with cancer lasted until 2 October 1996, when it took his life in a Montréal hospital. Shortly before his passing, his doctor told him at his bedside that, "Quebec loves you." Bourassa wept. Upon learning of his death, Pierre Trudeau, one of Bourassa's great political opponents, said: "He was a courageous man. He always wanted to improve the politics of his province."
Bourassa was elected premier four times, governing for a total of 15 years. In that time he grappled with the October Crisis, launched the James Bay megaproject, and advocated for the state-legislated advancement of French — and the exclusion of English — in spite of the negative consequences for free expression.
In the 1980s and 1990s he fought tirelessly for the recognition of Québec as a "distinct society" in Canada. Legally, Québec had never been excluded from the 1982 Constitution, but Bourassa is remembered as the premier who tried, and failed, to return his province to the political folds of the Constitution, so as to strengthen, he claimed, not only Québec but Confederation.