Robert Burns is no longer a household name in his native province, for he didn’t linger in partisan politics. However many of the headlines in current Quebec public life were key features of his decade as a left-wing firebrand member of the Quebec National Assembly.
Mr. Burns, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister who was the father of a ground-breaking law on political financing, died of cancer at a palliative centre in Boucherville, Que., on May 15. He was 77.
Many current issues – donations to political parties, the tensions between left- and right-wing factions of the sovereignty movement, the PQ’s survival after a debilitating electoral defeat – were contentious topics that Mr. Burns faced as one of the first elected PQ lawmakers.
Mr. Burns saw the party through dire moments, when it had only seven, then six, seats. He was also there when the PQ rebounded with a landslide victory in 1976.
The political-financing legislation that he sponsored, which prohibits corporate donations, is still in the news at hearings of the Charbonneau inquiry into corruption in the provincial construction industry.
He could only rue the fact that political operatives, including those of the PQ, eventually learned to circumvent the financing rules he introduced.
As minister of electoral reform, he also championed Quebec’s referendum law, which required that proponents of the same option on the sovereignty issue must work under one of two umbrella committees with equal financing.
He also initiated the televised broadcasting of National Assembly debates. If Quebec’s legislative chamber is now known as the Salon Bleu, it is because its green walls were repainted blue to make it more appealing when television cameras were introduced in 1978.
A former labour lawyer, Mr. Burns left politics with a measure of bitterness. “I am a socialist and the Parti Québécois is not always socialist,” he told reporters when he retired in 1979.
According to Graham Fraser’s book René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power, Mr. Burns was then asked if being a politician was similar to being a union militant. “In the union movement, I’ve got friends who last forever and I have no fear of turning my back and getting knifed,” he replied. “It’s not like that in politics.”
Tall, with a walrus mustache and a fiery temper, Robert Burns hailed from modest background and represented a blue-collar riding. He grew up dreaming of becoming a writer but went into labour law and politics because “I had always been for the underdog,” he once told The Globe and Mail.
He was born Sept. 5, 1936, the son of an English-speaking father of Irish ancestry, Edward Burns, and a francophone mother, Marie-Anne Bédard. The family lived in working-class Pointe-Saint-Charles, in southwest Montreal, where his father delivered bread. His father died when Robert was 2, and he and his mother moved to Rosemont, a somewhat more affluent neighbourhood.
He enjoyed sports in school but was studious enough to attend classical college, where he clashed with the Jesuit teachers. He received a scholarship to the University of Montreal’s law school and was active in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor of the New Democratic Party.
“Were my politics the result of my working-class background? Probably,” he told The Globe in a 1971 profile. “But we were also the first generation of students here who started shaking things up,” he added, alluding to the strikes, sit-ins and protests that began to shake Quebec from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church and the Duplessis regime.
“I was still a federalist. You were embarrassed to be a nationalist if you were the least bit progressive then, because it was to associate yourself with Duplessis,” he recalled.
Mr. Burns’s CCF involvement led to a career as a labour lawyer. He became an adviser for the Confederation of National Trade Unions, one of Quebec’s major labour groups. His views on Quebec shifted as he represented union workers in negotiations against anglophone bosses. And he felt that there was no adequate provincial counterpart to the NDP. So, after some arm-twisting, he agreed to run for the PQ in 1970, the first election in which it fielded candidates.
While party stars such as René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau were defeated, Mr. Burns was one of seven Péquistes elected to the legislature. Already familiar with the rules of order at union assemblies, he adapted easily to parliamentary procedures and was named house leader of the PQ’s small caucus.
He acknowledged, however, that he wasn’t truly engaged during his first year in the legislature: “I felt like I had been transplanted in a place where I didn’t belong.”
Within the PQ, he was the informal head of the left-wing faction of the caucus and was often at odds with Mr. Lévesque, the party founder and leader. The blunt-speaking Mr. Burns was the only minister to call Mr. Lévesque by the familiar “tu” pronoun. There were several clashes with the more centrist Mr. Lévesque when Mr. Burns defied the party and publicly sided with striking workers in high-profile labour disputes. When told that the PQ wouldn’t join a march by La Presse strikers in 1972, he slammed the door so hard when he left the meeting room that its glass pane shattered.
The party’s fortunes changed in 1976, when it won the election in a landslide. Mr. Burns was part of the first PQ cabinet, which was acclaimed for the exceptional academic and professional achievements of its members. He became one of the key strategists of the PQ’s independence drive, as government house leader and minister of state for parliamentary reform.
The first and most significant proposed legislation of the new PQ government was Bill 1, its French-language charter. The second, Bill 2, was Mr. Burns’s political-financing law, which was a reaction to the corruption and dirty tricks of previous Quebec governments. It banned corporate donations and was hailed as the tightest legislation of its kind in the Western world.
As house leader, Mr. Burns had to shepherd the bills into adoption but debate on Bill 1 took so long that officials in Premier Lévesque’s office decided to introduce revised legislation, Bill 101. Despite Mr. Burns’s opposition, the government insisted that both language bills remain on the legislative menu, in contravention of the rules. As debate ground down into procedural wranglings, Mr. Lévesque appeared to blame Mr. Burns for the mess, another spat in the two men’s testy relationship.
In August, 1977, Bill 2 was enacted. That same month, Mr. Burns tabled a white paper defining how the coming referendum would be conducted. It proposed that two umbrella committees – one for each option on the ballot – would be the only groups allowed to receive financing to make campaign expenditures. People outside Quebec were barred from donating money to the campaign.
Bill 92, spelling out the referendum campaign rules, was unveiled in December, 1977. As it faced criticism at committee hearings the following spring, Mr. Burns had a heart attack and was admitted to hospital in May, 1978. Justice Minister Marc-André Bédard replaced him as the minister piloting Bill 92, while Claude Charron took over as House Leader.
When he returned to work later that year, one of Mr. Burns’s last projects as a minister was a white paper championing proportional representation. He proposed the idea to cabinet in February, 1979, but found little enthusiasm.
Six months later, citing health reasons, he resigned from politics. “I tried to do it with more intensity than others and I think I can’t take it any more,” he said. At the time, sources told The Globe that while he remained popular, he felt increasingly isolated and disappointed.
In an interview with The Canadian Press that was supposed to be embargoed until after his departure from government, Mr. Burns said he was fed up with politics and was convinced the PQ would lose both the referendum and the next election, “and I don’t want to be there when it happens.” That pessimistic forecast, made public in the lead-up to the 1980 referendum, embarrassed Mr. Lévesque. Years later, in his own memoirs, Mr. Lévesque complained that Mr. Burns “quit the party bitterly, giving me a final kick as he went.”
Mr. Burns was later appointed as a judge to the Quebec Labour Court, where he presided for more than two decades. After his retirement from the bench, his name last appeared in the news in 2012 when he joined a number of public figures who joined in urging then-premier Jean Charest to negotiate with students protesting a tuition-fee-hike proposal. In a 2012 interview with Le Soleil, he said he was “disgusted” about the allegations heard at the Charbonneau inquiry that construction and engineering companies regularly flouted his financing law, making illegal political donations through bogus individual donors. He leaves his wife, Lorraine Vézina, and a daughter, Marie-Claude. Another daughter, Sylvie, predeceased him.