Robert Bourassa (Obituary)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 14, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

For Bourassa, the battle ended at 5:45 last Wednesday morning in a room on the eighth floor of the midtown Montreal hospital where he had been under care since August.
Bourassa, Robert
As premier, he was instrumental in negotiating the terms of the Meech Lake Accord and strongly supported free trade with the US (courtesy CP).

Bourassa, Robert (Obituary)

 Robert Bourassa departed from his life much as he had lived it, with meticulous consideration and quiet personal courage. Before leaving, he found the time to pen an appreciative note to the staff at Montreal's Notre Dame hospital, even managed a word of thanks to Rev. Armand Girard, the Roman Catholic priest who would administer last rites. He appeared to be in no doubt about the nature of his journey, judging from the remarks he uttered upon learning, two weeks earlier, that his doctors could no longer control the cancer that had spread from his skin to his brain, that they could merely alleviate his suffering. "There was a period of hesitancy, then he became calm," recalled Notre Dame oncologist Dr. Joseph Ayoub. "It was at this moment he told me, 'Now, we are going to fight the big fight. I am ready.'"

For Bourassa, the battle ended at 5:45 last Wednesday morning in a room on the eighth floor of the midtown Montreal hospital where he had been under care since August. The former Quebec premier, a key figure in some of the most tumultuous events in recent Canadian history, was 63 years old when he died, succumbing finally to the malignant melanoma he had twice fought into submission since it was first diagnosed in 1990. "He was not in deep suffering," said Ayoub. "He saved his last words for his wife, then he drifted back into sleep. At the end, his face was relaxed and peaceful."

Friend and foe alike lamented his passing, even while disagreeing about the legacy Bourassa bequeathed both Quebec and Canada. For some, he was a skilled political strategist, constantly manoeuvring the forces of Quebec nationalism in order to keep the province in Canada. "There were lots of tactical diversions along the way," remarked former Ontario premier David Peterson, "but there's no question that the aim, the whole object, was to make Canada whole." That may well be true but, in the opinion of many, it was Bourassa himself who helped to rekindle the guttering flames of nationalist ardor. "His approach was to set forces against each other to create a middle ground for himself as opposed to building a consensus between differing forces and find the commonality," argued Montreal lawyer Eric Maldoff, a founding member of the English-rights lobby group Alliance Quebec. "It is an approach that inevitably creates polarity. Quebec now is full of polarity and I think it can trace its way back to Bourassa and his style."

Whatever the accuracy of those judgments, there is no dispute about Bourassa's role in modern Canadian history. He has been a fixture on the country's political landscape for most of the last three decades. The son of a minor federal government functionary, he grew up in relatively modest circumstances in Montreal's east end. Despite his humble origins, however, he soon demonstrated superior abilities, studying law at the University of Montreal, then winning a Rhodes scholarship to attend Oxford and a Ford Foundation grant that sent him to Harvard. Along the way, he met and married Andrée Simard, the woman from one of Quebec's richest families who was at his side when he died last week.

It was in 1970 that Bourassa emerged from near obscurity to become, at 36, the youngest premier in Quebec's history. Since that time, he was, as current Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard pointed out, "an indisputable figure standing at all the crossroads of Quebec political life." During his first two terms in office, from 1970 to 1976, Bourassa's government conceived and launched what is likely to remain his major monument, the first of the massive schemes to harness the hydroelectric power of James Bay.

At the same time, however, it was also Bourassa's government that introduced the first restrictive language legislation in Quebec, setting the trend for all that followed. And it was Bourassa who presided over what is probably the darkest epoch in recent Canadian history - the 1970 October Crisis. He was a principal player in all of the country's constitutional quagmires, from Victoria through Meech Lake to Charlottetown. He was present for the first election of a provincial Parti Québécois government, an event that drove him not only out of office but right out of the country. His political resurrection in 1983 has become the stuff of legend in Quebec.

The most critical event in Bourassa's long career, however, occurred in 1990 at a picturesque little lakeside village just west of Montreal. Although few noticed it at the time, the summer-long standoff at Oka between Mohawk Warriors and the Quebec police played a major role in the destiny that finally overtook Bourassa last week. He chose to postpone treatment for the cancer that had appeared on his back in order to stay on the job during Oka. It was a decision that may have hastened his death. In the process, it also ensured Bourassa a position of respect among most Quebecers.

Maclean's October 14, 1996