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Bernard Landry gives a victory sign as he takes the stage at St-Hyacinthe, Que., on March 2, 2001.PAUL CHIASSON/The Canadian Press

Bernard Landry, the former premier of Quebec who was a key figure in the pro-independence movement that came close to victory in the 1995 referendum, has died at the age of 81.

Mr. Landry died at home on Tuesday surrounded by his grown children and wife, Chantal Renaud, after an extended illness that severely diminished his lung capacity.

Mr. Landry served as Quebec premier from 2001 to 2003 after Lucien Bouchard resigned. He never won an election as premier but he led the last Parti Québécois majority government. He served as deputy premier under Jacques Parizeau during the 1995 referendum and retained the post while adding a list of economic portfolios including finance under Mr. Bouchard from 1996 to 2001.

Quebec Premier François Legault served as an education and health minister under Mr. Landry, and described him as a brilliant premier who paid attention to the finest details.

“I remember going to his home when he asked me to move from education to health. I didn’t see that too positively. He told me, ‘François, it’s your duty.’ To him, duty was important. As he often said, party goes before person, and country before party,” Mr. Legault said.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered condolences to Mr. Landry’s family. “He served in politics and the cause he believed in with tremendous passion and devotion,” he said.

Mr. Landry was one of the last lions of the sovereignty movement, and got involved in politics in the 1960s alongside René Lévesque and was part of the first PQ government in 1976.

Pascal Bérubé, the PQ’s interim leader, called Mr. Landry the “Patriot of Verchères,” the town along the shore of the St. Laurence west of Montreal where Mr. Landry lived and died. “He never travelled toward any other country but Quebec.”

As finance minister, Mr. Landry cut spending starting in 1996 and balanced the Quebec budget for the first time in decades, but it came at a steep political cost for his party and the sovereignty movement, neither of which has ever returned to the levels of popularity of the 1990s.

Mr. Landry was an acclaimed PQ leader and became premier in 2001 after Mr. Bouchard left politics. He was defeated by Jean Charest in 2003. The crowning achievement of his brief time in office was a treaty with Quebec Cree, known as La Paix des Braves, which gave Indigenous nations joint jurisdiction and a share of profits in resource and hydro-electric developments in their territory. “This was no small thing, it completely changed the relationship between Quebec and the Cree and it’s been used as an example around the world,” former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe said.

Mr. Landry also drafted Quebec’s first digital strategy 22 years ago, which led major firms such as Ubisoft and Electronic Arts to become key pieces of the Montreal economy.

Mr. Landry could be hot-tempered. In 2001, during a disagreement with the federal government over Ottawa’s demand to link funding for an aquarium to the display of a Canadian flag, he said Quebec would not prostitute itself for a “chiffon rouge” – an expression he said was meant to compare the Maple Leaf to a red cloth waved by a matador, but was widely translated in English media as a “red rag.” He spent years afterward trying to correct the record.

Mr. Landry remained active in politics and current affairs well into his retirement, never hesitating to criticize onetime colleagues and urging young people to get involved in politics.

Mr. Landry was one of the last in a line of Quebec politicians that included Pierre Trudeau, Mr. Parizeau and Mr. Bouchard, who were classically trained under the clergy and could slip into Latin on a whim. “Audi alteram partem,” he said repeatedly during his last election campaign in 2003 – an exhortation to listen to the other side before casting judgment.

Two years later, Mr. Landry resigned abruptly as leader of the PQ and from politics after a lukewarm confidence vote of 76.2 per cent from his party – a decision he made on the spot without consulting key advisers and one he almost immediately regretted.