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Bernard Landry in his offices in Montreal on Jan. 25, 2001.

Christinne Muschi/REUTERS

In June, 2001, Grand Chief Ted Moses met with Bernard Landry in the Quebec premier’s imposing office complex, known as “the Bunker,” to discuss how they could bring more prosperity to the Cree and end an acrimonious history of legal battles over hydro dams and other resource development in northern Quebec.

Mr. Landry asked Mr. Moses a question for which the chief was not prepared: “Are you a Canadian first or a Québécois first?”

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Mr. Moses’s mind raced. Was this a trick question from the staunch separatist premier? Could the wrong answer kill any chance of negotiation and reconciliation?

“My brain was going a million miles an hour and then the only answer finally came to me. I told him: ‘I’m neither Canadian nor Québécois first,’” Mr. Moses recalls 17 years later. “I am Eeyou Eenou. It means people and that’s what we Cree call ourselves. We are a people who have a right to self-determination.”

Mr. Landry, the indefatigable believer in the dream of Quebec independence, recognized common ground. “Very well, we shall meet again,” Mr. Landry replied. The discussion set the stage for La Paix des braves, a 50-year agreement that ended 16 lawsuits, put $109-million a year plus revenue sharing into the hands of the Cree nation and opened the door to northern developments that have enriched all Quebeckers.

Mr. Landry, a hot-tempered and deeply devoted politician whose love and ambition for Quebec were unwavering, died Tuesday from pulmonary fibrosis. He was 81. He was a powerful and supremely competent figure in several Parti Québécois governments in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, but served as premier for only two years. He considered La Paix des Braves among his crowning achievements. Allies and political opponents alike called the agreement visionary. Mr. Moses, who became friends with Mr. Landry, even attending his second wedding, agrees.

Mr. Landry was the indefatigable believer in the dream of Quebec independence.

Christinne Muschi/REUTERS

“It takes a deep political commitment to make something like this happen, to create a relationship, to create trust, to have trust. We referred to each other in the years afterward as friends and brothers. It’s not everyone who can get to that point,” Mr. Moses said.

What the agreement and Mr. Landry still mean to the Cree was clear this week as current Indigenous leaders expressed condolences to Mr. Landry’s family: “We have all lost a friend. Farewell, Mr. Landry. A rest well-deserved for a truly brave man who has served his people and his nation well.”

Jean-Bernard Landry was born on March 9, 1937, and was raised in a farmhouse near Saint-Jacques, Que., a small village about 45 kilometres north of Montreal. He was the only son of Bernard Landry and Thérèse Granger, who also adopted two girls. Mr. Landry said his mother instilled in him a love of literature and music.

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He studied at a one-room schoolhouse before enrolling in Séminaire de Joliette – one of Quebec’s priest-run classical colleges that trained a generation of Quebec leaders from René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard to Pierre Trudeau. Jean Chrétien was one year ahead of Mr. Landry at the school. Mr. Landry learned Greek and Latin, which he would often use in a flourish on the campaign trail in later years. He also learned to speak Spanish fluently.

Mr. Landry said his “road to Damascus” and the sovereignty movement came when he joined Le Régiment de Joliette of the Canadian Forces. “We could see that Francophones were second-class citizens. I was told, ‘You speak English, that’s an order,’ and that type of thing. I won’t even talk about the insults,” he told Saturday Night magazine in 2001. Still, the structure and discipline of army life appealed to him and he made friends among some English-speaking officers who were “enlightened people.” He would remain in the reserves for 10 years.

He studied law at the University of Montreal starting in 1958 and led a strike against tuition-fee hikes as president of the student union.

He campaigned for the Liberal Jean Lesage government in 1960, but by the next year, archival Radio-Canada footage shows him hinting at an evolution toward the separatist movement.

Mr. Lévesque, then a Liberal cabinet minister, recruited him to work in his office in 1962 during the debate over nationalizing the electrical grid. After three years, Mr. Landry returned to school to study economics in Paris. There, as the early form of European economic union was taking shape, he decided a province such as Quebec could have economic convergence with Canada and North America while still maintaining a homeland and cultural identity.

He returned to Quebec to practise law as Mr. Lévesque founded the PQ in time for the 1970 election. He ran and lost that year and again in 1973 before moving to Montreal with his wife, Lorraine Laporte-Landry, a fellow lawyer. The couple had three children, Julie, Philippe and Pascale.

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Ms. Laporte-Landry, who became a Quebec Court judge, died of cancer in 1999. Five years later, Mr. Landry married actor, singer and writer Chantal Renaud, who was rarely far from his side right until his death. Mr. Landry leaves Ms. Renaud, along with his three children, nine grandchildren and two great grand-children.

Mr. Landry next to a portrait of René Lévesque in Quebec City on June 21, 1985.

Jacques Nadeau/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mr. Landry finally won a riding in the PQ sweep of 1976 and was immediately given a seat at the cabinet as junior economy minister. In 1979, he wrote the party’s first long-term economic plan that included capitalizing on hydroelectric and other natural-resource development and new technology. Twenty years later, it inspired Mr. Landry’s plan to draw upstart multimedia companies, such as the French video-game giant Ubisoft, to the province through a combination of subsidies and real estate development to create a tech hub in Montreal.

“He was a visionary who dared to try new things,” former PQ premier Pauline Marois said. “He was a man who was incredibly open on the world and who was always thinking about the future.”

But for all his skill and vision, Mr. Landry spent most of his career as Quebec’s most important second-fiddle and met bitter disappointment when it came to independence.

Mr. Landry was a key minister under Mr. Lévesque, but was quickly outmanoeuvred by Pierre Marc Johnson after the premier quit in 1985. He was a vital No. 2 in the Parizeau government leading into the 1995 referendum, but was supplanted by Mr. Bouchard, who was far more popular, when the time came to replace Mr. Parizeau. He finally outfoxed potential foes to replace Mr. Bouchard and become premier in 2001.

The 1995 referendum defeat left a mark that was indelible. While Mr. Parizeau was remembered for blaming money and ethnic votes that night, Mr. Landry threw his own tantrum, telling a Hispanic hotel clerk she was to blame for the failure of the national dream. He later apologized to her.

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That hot temper, barbed tongue and impulsive side got him in trouble on other occasions. Mr. Landry forced Mr. Parizeau to delay calling the 1995 referendum. "I don't want to be the second in command of the Light Brigade," Mr. Landry said, referring to the suicidal cavalry charge of the Crimean War. “We will not lead our troops to the slaughterhouse.”

When Ottawa demanded the Canadian flag fly at a province-run aquarium in return for funding, he raged the province would not prostitute itself for “a red rag,” creating a national scandal. (He later complained that his French words – chiffon rouge – were too harshly translated into “red rag” in English.) He claimed any Quebecker who would vote for Mr. Chrétien must “detest” Quebec. He once complained that federal-government attempts to increase visibility in Quebec constituted “the rape of the masses.” (This Canadian initiative would later be better known as the sponsorship scandal for diverting millions of promotional dollars into Liberal-friendly hands.)

Mr. Landry lights a cigarette for former Quebec premier René Lévesque in Quebec City on March 5, 1984.

Jacques Nadeau/THE CANADIAN PRESS

He also had epic blowouts with colleagues and staff, but Mr. Landry also had a knack for making up. Columnist and former adviser Josée Legault described this week how her time working for him ended badly, but years later, she was shocked and touched when he called to apologize. They became friends.

Once, on a foreign mission, Hubert Bolduc – a top adviser – tried to get Mr. Landry to stick to talking about the economy instead of Quebec’s national aspirations. “What followed was an epic tongue-lashing the likes of which I’d never experienced and haven’t since,” Mr. Bolduc recalled. Mr. Landry suggested in impolite terms that if Mr. Bolduc wanted to work for the premier of an ordinary province he could perhaps move. “One of the bodyguards asked if I was okay. But it ended as quickly as it started, he never held it against me and we quickly moved on.”

Mr. Landry’s two years as premier ended in 2003 in defeat at the hands of Jean Charest – the end of the PQ’s golden years and the start of a 15-year Liberal era, minus 18 months of minority PQ government led by Ms. Marois.

The losing 2003 campaign did create one of Mr. Landry’s lasting contributions to political history. He allowed noted documentary filmmaker Jean-Claude Labrecque to follow his every move. The resulting award-winning film, À Hauteur d’homme, gives viewers a rare glimpse into election campaign machinations.

When Mr. Landry viewed the documentary, he was sure the portrayal of his hot temper and constant clashes with advisers and reporters would end his career, but it created some public sympathy instead. “We all thought he was crazy for agreeing to it,” Mr. Bolduc said. “But it’s a document that will last generations.”

Mr. Landry’s biggest mistake came at the end of his political career, on a Saturday night in June, 2005. Disappointed by a lukewarm confidence vote, he shocked his party by resigning on the spot – a rash decision he regretted almost immediately. He later tried to blame advisers for the decision but, as Mr. Bolduc notes, he was the boss. “He decided he had to quit and he quit.”

“The very next day, he asked, ‘What have I done?' but it was too late.”

Mr. Landry returned to private life but he was never far from public affairs. He taught at the University of Quebec in Montreal and was always ready to share advice for his successors and the independence movement. While other separatist icons such as Mr. Bouchard and Mr. Parizeau became disillusioned, Mr. Landry remained the optimist. Bedridden and surviving on oxygen in recent weeks, until the very end he proclaimed his belief Quebec will one day be an independent country.

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