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Marc Lalonde in Ottawa on April 25, 1983. Mr. Lalonde died on May 6 at the age of 93.The Canadian Press

It was October of 1970 and Canada was in the midst of an unprecedented domestic security crisis. Terrorist cells of the separatist Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) had kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte and were making a series of radical demands.

Authorities were worried that the situation was getting out of control. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau contemplated enacting the War Measures Act and suspending civil liberties, but was reluctant to do so without the express consent of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau.

So Mr. Trudeau turned to his trusted adviser and principal secretary, Marc Lalonde, and gave him the job of negotiating with Mr. Bourassa and Mr. Drapeau. It was a measure of the trust that Mr. Trudeau placed in Mr. Lalonde, who died on May 6 at the age of 93, that he was given this daunting task.

According to Mr. Lalonde’s son, Paul Lalonde, “Mr. Trudeau was very clear that he wouldn’t invoke the War Measures Act unless there was a specific request to do so by the premier of Quebec and the mayor of Montreal and my father was involved in literally going to their offices to collect those letters.”

The War Measures Act was invoked, troops were deployed and hundreds were arrested. Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte was murdered by his FLQ captors. Mr. Cross was eventually freed in return for safe passage of his kidnappers to Cuba and Mr. Laporte’s killers were arrested. The crisis dissipated but the scars remained.

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Federal Finance Minister John Turner listens intently as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Minister of Health Marc Lalonde have a discussion (right) a during Federal-Provincial conference of first ministers in Ottawa in 1973.John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

“This was the most depressing time I had in my whole political life,” Mr. Lalonde recalled on the 50th anniversary of the crisis. “I had the feeling that Quebec society was destroying itself.”

For more than 15 years, Mr. Lalonde was at the heart of Canadian politics, the unflappable, cerebral lawyer who went from backroom adviser to elected politician, holding the key portfolios of health, federal-provincial affairs, energy and finance and serving as political lieutenant for Quebec. He was the architect of the National Energy Program (NEP), the 1980 policy aimed at giving Ottawa a bigger stake in the oil industry and keeping domestic oil prices below world levels, prompting resentment and anger in Alberta that persists today.

But throughout his career, Mr. Lalonde gained respect as a superior intellect, a hard-working minister who was cool under pressure.

“He was a wonderful man to work with, extremely demanding, intellectually rigorous,” said Paul Tellier, who headed up the task force that co-ordinated the federal response to the 1980 Quebec referendum and reported to Mr. Lalonde when he was minister of federal-provincial relations. “When you argued your point of view, you had to be logical. You had to be structured. We were working under pressure but whether you walked into his office at 8 o’clock in the morning or 8 o’clock at night, the reaction was always the same,” said Mr. Tellier, who went on to become Clerk of the Privy Council and president of Canadian National Railway.

“He was a strong believer in a federal system of government with the provinces having their responsibilities and the federal government its responsibilities,” said Mr. Tellier, who was in regular contact with Mr. Lalonde until just recently.

Marc Lalonde was born on July 26, 1929, in Île Perrot, an island west of Montreal in the Lalonde ancestral home along the St. Lawrence River that had been built by the family in 1745. He was the fourth of five children of Joseph Albert Lalonde, a farmer and local mayor, and his wife, Laura St-Aubin.

He grew up on the farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse in the days before the island became more of a bedroom community. He attended Collège St-Laurent in Montreal and earned bachelor’s and master’s of law degrees at the University of Montreal. “He was a brilliant student, top of his class,” recalled his son Paul, a Toronto lawyer.

In 1955, Marc Lalonde married Claire Tétreau, who was secretary to the dean at the University of Montreal law school. A year later, they were off to Oxford University, where Mr. Lalonde earned a master’s degree before returning to Canada and graduating with a diploma in higher studies at the University of Ottawa Law School.

He got his first job in Ottawa in 1959 as a political staffer for Davie Fulton, justice minister in the Progressive Conservative government of John Diefenbaker, working on constitutional issues. He returned to Montreal in 1960 and practised law until he was invited by Prime Minister Lester Pearson to join his office as an adviser in 1967. He supported Pierre Trudeau’s run for the leadership in 1968 and became his principal secretary when Mr. Trudeau became prime minister.

John English, the Trudeau biographer, said the two men were both progressive Catholic intellectuals from Quebec who worked together on the publication Cité Libre and believed that French-speaking Canadians needed to take their place in the federal government. “They developed a close reliance on each other. You can call it a friendship but it was probably more professional than personal.” Mr. English said. In his statement on Mr. Lalonde’s passing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Mr. Lalonde “brilliant” and said he remembered his Dad and Mr. Lalonde “sitting around our dinner table, having long and engaging debates on anything and everything.”

“Justin and Sacha (Alexandre Trudeau) adored Marc,” added Mr. English, who said Mr. Lalonde canvassed for Justin when he first entered politics.

In 1972, Mr. Lalonde plunged directly into politics and was elected as Liberal MP for Outremont. After stints in health and justice, he was named energy minister after the Liberals returned to power in 1980 following the brief Clark government. His National Energy Program was excoriated by the oil patch and later scrapped by the Mulroney government. But Mr. Lalonde had few regrets.

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Finance Minister Marc Lalonde is congratulated by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at the end of Lalonde's budget speech in the House of Commons in Ottawa on April 19, 1983.Chuck Mitchell/The Canadian Press

Speaking in 2020 to The Calgary Herald, he said the program failed because oil prices didn’t rise as expected and that it’s easy to make those kinds of judgments in hindsight. “The goal was not to kill the goose. The hope was to get what we considered was our fair share of the goose,” he said, adding that he understood Albertans’ reaction but after 40 years it was time to move on. “Obviously, a lot of people like to entertain a kind of sense of persecution up to this day ... The better choice for Albertans and the Alberta government is to be a full participant rather than sitting on the sidelines.”

While the NEP and fighting Quebec separatism grabbed the headlines, the measure that attracted the broadest public attention came in 1974, when also holding the amateur sports portfolio, he moved to protect the Canadian Football League from the threatened foreign incursion of a team from the fledgling World Football League, which was looking to launch a franchise in Toronto. He introduced legislation to ban the move, which never passed but was credited with stopping the threat.

Mr. Lalonde moved on to the finance portfolio in the midst of a deep recession. When Mr. Trudeau decided to step down in 1984, Mr. Lalonde backed John Turner as Liberal leader but decided not to run in the subsequent election. He returned to practising law at Stikeman Elliott in Montreal and became a sought-after international arbitrator, a role he continued until turning 90.

He retained an interest in politics, serving as co-chair of the Liberal Party’s campaign in Quebec in the 2005 federal election. He was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada and was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Western Ontario (now Western University) and Limburg University in Maastricht, the Netherlands. He was also awarded the World Health Organization medal for his contribution to health policy.

Mr. Lalonde and his wife inherited their beloved ancestral home on Île Perrot, moving back there in the 1980s. He was happiest there, tending his flowers, growing tomatoes and sailing his Laser on Lake St-Louis. He was also a keen fly fisherman, skier and played tennis and squash. His son said his father may have had an accomplished career in politics and law but was never happier than when he was at home surrounded by family.

Mr. Lalonde leaves his wife Claire, his children Marie Pascale, Luc, Paul and Catherine, his brother Claude and sister Hélène, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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