It was hard to take him seriously.
A small-town used-car salesman who went into politics, Camil Samson had a toothy smile, a pronounced speech impediment ( “s” always came out “sh”) and a tendency to get carried away.
Considered a throwback from another era, he was dismissed as an “amusing demagogue,” or as the joker of Quebec politics. But then in 1970 he founded a provincial wing of the Social Credit Party, and confounded the pundits by winning 12 seats in a general election held a month later.
A spellbinding, if unvarnished soap-box orator, Samson died in Quebec City on Tuesday, three weeks shy of his 78th birthday. Perhaps best described as a fiscally confused conservative who championed so-called family values, he railed against big banks and high interest rates, denounced abortion, the pill and sex education.
He also found Communists lurking in the labour unions, and endorsed Hitler’s economic policies. The Parti Québécois, he once charged, had “taken God out of the schools and replaced him with drugs and sex.”
Veteran political pundit Don Macpherson of the Montreal Gazette called him the Jerry Lewis of Quebec politics. Fellow journalist Robert Mckenzie wrote that he had a “mouth like a piano” and a silly smile that made him look like Fernandel, the famously toothy comic French actor.
Samson was a political opportunist. His first foray into the public arena was as a federal Social Credit candidate in a riding in northeastern Ontario in 1963. Just three years later, he ran provincially for the Ralliement National, a fledgling Quebec separatist party. Yet he ended his days as a Liberal, campaigning along the backroads with Jean Chrétien for the No side in the 1980 referendum on Quebec sovereignty and tried to save his seat in the legislature by becoming a provincial Liberal.
The eldest of four children, he was born (as Camille) in Shawinigan, Que., on Jan. 3, 1935, a year ahead of Chrétien, the town’s most famous native son. His father worked in a paper mill, and Samson attended elementary school with the future prime minister’s wife, Aline.
He defined himself as the defender of the little guy, much like Chrétien, who suggests in his memoirs that, while Samson “may have caused the intellectuals and snobs to look down on him, it made him a winner with his rural constituents. He was a folksy type, a dynamic orator with a terrific sense of humour.”
Samson’s family left Shawinigan for Clericy, a small town near Rouyn-Noranda. At 15, he went to work for the Ontario Northern Railway, where he learned English. He returned to open a restaurant in Clericy, then sold automobiles, conducted a marching band, founded an amateur theatre group, which opened with a French version of The Boy Friend in Rouyn-Noranda, and was elected president of the local Chamber of Commerce.
As Quebec voters, who had embraced John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives in 1958 became increasingly disenchanted with his government, many of them turned to Social Credit, which was jointly led by Robert Thomson in English Canada, and by Réal Caouette in Quebec.
From the moment Samson heard Caouette address a rally in Rouyn-Noranda, he became a supporter. “What [Caouette] had to say was logical, uncomplicated, and it made sense.” He became a party organizer, and ran on the Social Credit ticket in Témiscamingue. He lost.
As Caouette’s sidekick, he brought the Social Credit movement to provincial politics and in 1970 founded the Ralliement des Créditistes, which came out of nowhere as “the middle way between two extremes,” to win 11 per cent of the vote and 12 seats in the first election won by Robert Bourassa as Liberal leader.
As an MLA Samson proved to be an effective, colourful debater. In speeches, he presciently and repeatedly warned that both the Liberals and later the Parti Québécois governments were wasting taxpayer money on social programs that would leave Quebeckers indebted for generations.
“Within a month he became a political phenomenon, one of those people who spoke words of fire,” recalled former MNA Bernard Dumont. “Sure, he was fodder for editorial cartoonists everywhere, but he was much more than a caricature. He was, at the time, a force to be reckoned with.”
Within three years, however, he lost the confidence of his caucus, and the party he had created imploded. Although removed as leader, he was undeterred, returning with two loyalists to the legislature as the newly registered Ralliement créditiste du Québec which, through political infighting, evolved into the Parti Créditiste.
In one hilarious exchange in the National Assembly, Samson complained that “fluoridation destroys the brain.” Another MNA promptly quipped that that might account for Samson’s buffoonery, given that the water supply in Rouyn-Noranda had been fluoridated for 25 years.
By 1976 Samson was the lone member of the Créditiste movement to withstand René Lévesque’s victory. Sporting a gold crucifix around his neck, he was regarded as the last gasp of a rural Catholic Quebec that saw its traditional homespun values slipping away. He campaigned against pornography, against divorce, against prostitution and for the return of capital punishment.
In one rather convoluted appearance before a legislative committee hearing, he managed to denounce abortionist Henry Morgentaler as an ingrate. Samson told the committee that Quebec soldiers fought to save people from the crematoriums, and that, instead of being grateful, “among the artisans of abortion at home, we find people of the same nationality we were trying to rescue.”
On another occasion he said he admired Hitler’s “economic approach” as the solution to Canada’s problems, but also pointed out in his party’s publication, La Planche de Salut (Our Salvation), that the Fuhrer’s “hysteric decisions” destroyed his regime’s economic prowess.
In 1978, while he was still an MNA, Samson joined forces with former federal Conservative cabinet minister Pierre Sévigny in an attempt to get a new party, Les Democrats, off the ground. It went nowhere. He then joined Claude Ryan’s Liberals in a failed bid to save his seat in the 1981 provincial election.
He found work as a radio talk-show host, first at CKVC then at CHRC, both in Quebec City. He attempted a comeback, again as a federal Liberal, in the 1993 election that brought Chrétien to power, but lost to the Bloc. For his loyalty, he was named an adviser to the federal minister responsible for Quebec City.
Samson was no fan of her party, but in a statement issued this week, Premier Pauline Marois acknowledged his unique contributions to the political process.
“He didn’t leave anyone indifferent. His colourful language and the images he used to express his ideas made political history in Quebec. Many people appreciated his straight-shooting oratory, which put him in a class of his own. He was incomparable.”
He leaves his wife of 56 years, Gisèle Tardif, and their three children, Louise, Daniel and Mario.
When Camil Samson, leader and sole member of the Democrate-Creditistes, comes on stage at rallies of the No side, he sounds like a fundamentalist preacher who has no low gear.
He stands there, face red under his modified pompadour, voice booming from lots of practice speaking in halls without microphones, delivering some of the better folk humour in Quebec.
To Mr. Samson, the Parti Québécois’ referendum question is like a bear trap: Just a little negotiation, come on, put one foot in, it won’t hurt. And if you decide after a year you don’t like it you can refuse to put the other foot in.
He gets a good five minutes out of that one, turning to beckon an invisible bear in a quavery voice like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. “Come on, my little kitten. It won’t hurt. Just one little paw.” Then he talks about how the question is so twisted it makes an auger look straight. “Tortuous, sinuous,” he begins, launching into a patented list of synonyms.
The other night on his home territory of Rouyn somebody in the audience beat him to the next: croche (which translates roughly as crooked).
The audience and everybody on the dais – most of whom had heard the routine at least half a dozen times – broke up.
He’s a great warm-up act, and he has been first speaker wherever he appears, but he is difficult to follow. Inevitably the poor soul on after him feels obliged to apologize for his style.
At another rally Sunday, Mr. Samson noted that a journalist had complained about the number of times he’d heard the bear-trap analogy.
Well, he said, priests had been preaching the gospel for 2,000 years and there were still some poor souls who hadn’t understood.
However, he would do his best.
Quebec columnist William Johnson writing on Sept. 3, 1980:
Mr. Samson, the populist from Rouyn-Noranda, yesterday abandoned his long struggle to win Quebec to Social Credit and announced that he will finish off his term in the National Assembly as a Liberal. The spring referendum campaign, in which he fought shoulder to shoulder with Claude Ryan against sovereignty-association, cemented ties between him and the Liberal leader. Mr. Samson, a self-made man and a stump orator, was a perfect foil with his earthy jokes and sarcasms for the more cerebral orations of Mr. Ryan.
With Camil Samson’s defection an era ends. He was a protégé of Real Caouette and a fervent apostle of Social Credit. He broke with his leader in 1970 when he launched the provincial wing of Social Credit and took 12 seats in the 1970 Quebec elections.
He won his own seat in every election since, though in 1973 his party only elected one other member, and in 1976 Mr. Samson was alone.
He looked for alliances with such other right-of-centre politicians as Pierre Se vigny, and changed the name of the party several times, most recently to Creditistes-Democrats.
He must have seen the handwriting on the wall: In today’s Quebec, politics are so polarized around the PQ that there is really only room for one opposition party.
Editor's note: While there are secondary sources who reported that Mr. Samson once said "the present government has taken us to the edge of the abyss. Elect me, and I will take you a step forward,” there are others who suspect he did not. The quote has been removed from this version after publication.