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Jean St-Louis.

Courtesy of family

Jean St-Louis: Francophone. Warrior. Leader. Artist. Born July 20, 1954, in Sturgeon Falls, Ont., died May 21, 2020, in Ottawa; of congestive heart failure; aged 65.

As the October Crisis of 1970 reverberated across Canada, Jean St-Louis found inspiration in the fight for francophone language rights. Barely 17, Jean became a leader in the francophone-rights movement in his Northern Ontario hometown of Sturgeon Falls. He ran student protests in 1971, which led to the establishment of École secondaire Franco-Cité. He was encouraged by prime minister Pierre Trudeau when they met, and in meetings with the provincial education minister and premier, Jean would not cede an inch to those who tried to marginalize Ontario’s francophone community. He was obstinate, intense and passionate, and he learned his leadership skills early.

Jean was the eldest of five brothers in a modest working-class family. He assumed a leadership role (by default or decree remains debatable to this day) for many of the boys’ games. In winter, he would act as commissioner and rules maker for hockey games played on the small outdoor rink their father made each year. In summer, he would be the master designer and commander of cedar log rafts they put together on Tomiko Lake.

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Jean sang and played guitar for the youth services at his church and worked both behind the scenes and on stage in high-school shows and local summer concerts in Sudbury and Ottawa. In the summer, he also put in shifts alongside his father and two uncles at the Abitibi paper mill.

In 1974, Jean married his high-school sweetheart Lise Robert. Their honeymoon road trip was cut short by a transport truck on a mountainous northern California road, nearly sending their car plunging down a steep cliff. The aborted vacation nonetheless whetted the couple’s appetite for travel, and numerous trips across Canada and abroad followed over the years.

Their son Sébastien was born in 1983, and Jean became heavily involved in the Boy Scout movement. Sébastien says his father taught him “to think, lead and, when necessary, fight.” Jean loved landscape photography (his favourite hobby) and long walks all over Ottawa with his dogs. Jean and Lise always had one: a Lab, two beagle mutts and three Schnauzers. Jean would later write a large collection of French poems related to his photography, which Lise hopes to self-publish.

Jean worked for l’Association canadienne-française de l’Ontario in Thunder Bay and Kingston, then settled the family in Ottawa where he spent a dozen years in senior management with the federal government. Frustrated with the pace of bureaucracy, he opted for a new career in which he felt he could make a real difference: teaching. He returned to university for his elementary teaching credentials and taught in the French school system.

Jean and Lise eventually tired of Ottawa’s winters and spent them in the Dominican Republic, happy to welcome friends and family on holiday. There Jean would engage in long solitary walks on the beach, sometimes accompanied by his visiting youngest brother, Marc.

Stubborn as always, on the night prior to his passing, Jean declined the use of a stretcher and walked to the ambulance. In the hospital, with his hand on Jean’s chest, Sébastien felt his father’s final heartbeat.

Jean’s work for Ontario’s francophone community helped unleash a cultural torrent that echoed in later language battles in the town of Penetanguishene, Ottawa’s Hôpital Monfort and elsewhere, and continues to spread throughout the province today. His is regarded as a key figure in the awakening of Ontario’s francophone-rights movement.

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Ron St-Louis is Jean’s brother.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide

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