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Quebec's former premier Lucien Bouchard (right) and former Cabinet minister Marc André Bédard unveil a bronze statue of Quebec's former premier René Lévesque in Quebec City, on June 3, 1999.

Reuters

As a justice minister, Marc-André Bédard left an impact on the lives of ordinary Quebeckers by making discrimination against gay people illegal, putting men and women on an equal footing in family law, and ending the criminal prosecution of abortion doctors.

To political junkies, he was known as a confidant to two of Quebec’s most popular politicians, the Parti Québécois premiers René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard. Mr. Bédard became friends with Mr. Bouchard when the two practised law and he talked the future premier into joining the sovereignty movement, getting him to sign his PQ membership card during lunch at a restaurant.

Mr. Bédard, Quebec’s longest-serving justice minister and a stalwart figure of the Quebec independence movement, died Wednesday of complications from COVID-19. He had been admitted to the Chicoutimi Hospital, in his native Saguenay region, a part of the province hard-hit by the pandemic. He was 85.

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His son Stéphane, who is also a lawyer and former PQ cabinet minister, confirmed the death, saying in a statement that his father “left Quebeckers a great legacy marked by confidence and pride, the constant search for justice and involvement in his community.”

Quebec Premier François Legault said Mr. Bédard was living at Manoir Champlain, a residential complex for semi-autonomous seniors in Saguenay where a COVID-19 outbreak has infected more than 100 residents, killing four of them.

Mr. Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister, lauded Mr. Bédard as a pragmatic, centre-right lawmaker who had built a political stronghold in his native region. “A lot of people claim to be friends with René Lévesque but he was truly a friend of René Lévesque. He told me of some memorable late night card games with René Lévesque.”

Mr. Bédard had been a loyal Lévesque supporter since the first day of the PQ, attending the party’s founding convention in 1968 and getting elected to its national executive the following year. When the PQ took power in 1976, Mr. Bédard became justice minister and held the portfolio until 1984, steering the legislations behind the sweeping reforms such as the French language charter and the no-fault automobile insurance plan.

His lack of enthusiasm for the automobile-insurance proposal reinforced his image as a conservative-minded cabinet minister. But his reaction to other events showed a side of Mr. Bédard more closely aligned with the left wing of the PQ.

The month before the PQ took power in November of 1976, a jury in Montreal acquitted Henry Morgentaler on a charge of performing illegal abortions, the third time that jurors rejected criminal charges against the doctor. Mr. Bédard decided that the province would drop remaining charges against Dr. Morgentaler and other abortion physicians.

“To keep prosecuting felt for me like judicial harassment … the jurors were sending us a message that it wasn’t a criminal issue but a social one,” Mr. Bédard recalled in Mémoires de députés, a Quebec legislature oral history video.

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Quebec's former minister of intergovermental affairs Jacques-Yvan Morin (left) and Marc-André Bédard (right) in conversation before the start of a federal-provincial justice ministers meeting in Ottawa, on Feb. 28, 1983.

Andy Clark/UPC

The following year, Montreal police raided two gay establishments, Truxx and Le Mystique, charging scores of men with being in a bawdy house. The ensuing uproar set the stage for the province amending the Quebec Human Rights Charter to make sexual orientation an illegal ground for discrimination. Quebec was the first jurisdiction in Canada to make such a move.

In Mémoires de députés, Mr. Bédard said he had been sensitized to the plight of gay people in his law practice in the 1960s, representing clients who had lost jobs or promotion opportunities because of their sexual orientation.

Mr. Bédard also modernized the province’s Civil Code, removing, for example, sections that gave the husband the last word in family disputes, and abolishing distinctions between legitimate, illegitimate and adopted children so that they had equal status when deciding support payments or inheritances.

In 1982, Mr. Bédard introduced legislation to invoke the notwithstanding clause in every new Quebec law, to keep them out of the reach of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It was a protest against the 1982 Canadian Constitution, which the PQ government did not recognize. The PQ also opposed the federal charter because it could be used to challenge Quebec’s language laws. The systematic use of the override clause remained in place until the PQ was out of power in 1985.

Mr. Bédard was part of the delegation that accompanied Mr. Lévesque at the federal-provincial conference of November, 1981. It ended with Quebec being left out while the other premiers reached an overnight agreement to patriate the Constitution and its charter.

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The political intrigues surrounding the 1982 Constitution got cloudier with revelations a decade later that Quebec’s lead minister in the file, Claude Morin, had once been a paid RCMP informant.

Mr. Morin had confided in early 1977 to Mr. Bédard that, for a number of years already, he had been in contact with the federal police. Mr. Bédard supported Mr. Morin’s idea to meet his RCMP handlers a few more times to find out more about the Mounties’ plans.

At the time, sovereigntists were still reeling from revelations about the RCMP’s dirty tricks against their movement. Mr. Bédard had appointed the Keable inquiry to look into RCMP wrongdoings in Quebec in the 1970s.

The justice minister, however, chose not to inform Mr. Lévesque of Mr. Morin’s RCMP meetings until the premier fully learned of the whole matter four years later.

Mr. Bédard, who usually spoke in a guarded, measured way, was described by journalists as restrained or taciturn. But on one occasion, he lost his temper in public at a party national council in 1980. He nearly came to blows with hardliner Guy Bertrand who was advocating a unilateral declaration of independence. News reports said the two men had to be separated as they clashed in a hallway. Questioning Mr. Bertrand’s loyalty, Mr. Bédard shouted that he had risked career and family during a lifetime dedicated to sovereignty.

He was born on Aug. 15, 1935, in Lac-à-la-Croix, one of the eight children of Lorenzo Bédard and Laurette Bilodeau, who were farmers in the Saguenay, an outlying region 200 kilometres north of Quebec City.

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In his video interview for Mémoires de députés, Mr. Bédard said his political views had been shaped when he was a seminary student, reading L’Action nationale, a monthly magazine advocating a traditional brand of church-centric French-Canadian nationalism through writers like the Jesuit father Richard Arès.

Mr. Bédard’s opinions were further cemented when he studied law at the University of Ottawa and witnessed the marginalization of Franco-Ontarians in the 1950s.

After passing the bar exam in 1960, he started practising law in Chicoutimi, the main regional centre, now known as the amalgamated city of Saguenay. He became friends with another up-and-coming lawyer who had his office in the same building, Lucien Bouchard.

At the time, Mr. Bouchard was a supporter of Pierre Trudeau and the federal Liberals, but Mr. Bédard sensed that his friend was restless. In the documentary Nation - huis clos avec Lucien Bouchard, the future separatist leader recalled that “Marc-André, he’s a crusader of sovereignty, he converted people, he worked on me a lot.”

Mr. Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act in 1970 ended Mr. Bouchard’s allegiance to the Liberals and he signed his PQ membership card at a restaurant table with Mr. Bédard and a visiting PQ executive, Jacques Parizeau.

Two years later, Mr. Bédard was elected to the Quebec National Assembly, the start of his 12-year political career. Mr. Bouchard remained in Chicoutimi until he became ambassador to France and then a Conservative federal minister.

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Mr. Bédard kept in touch with his friend and was part of the behind-the-scenes PQ drive to recruit Quebec MPs to the separatist cause in 1990 when Mr. Bouchard turned his back on the Conservatives to launch the Bloc Québécois.

Mr. Legault, who was a PQ member for a decade before starting his own party, said that Mr. Bédard and his family remained a political force in the region. Stéphane Bédard represented his father’s old riding from 1998 to 2015.

Mr. Bédard, who was predeceased by his wife, Nicole Girard, leaves four sons, Éric, Stéphane, Louis and Maxime.

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