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Former cabinet minister Roch LaSalle, the gregarious former tobacco salesman who was one of the few Conservatives to be consistently elected in Quebec, has died. He was 79.

Re-elected six times in the riding of Joliette, Mr. LaSalle was for two decades the sole francophone voice of the Progressive Conservatives in Quebec, giving him great visibility in the province.

His second stint in cabinet ended on a sour note, however, in a flurry of scandals.

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A self-made man who left school after Grade 7, Mr. LaSalle was an old-school populist who said that patronage was "a fact of political life at all levels."

He kept in close touch with his constituents and was known for arm-waving two-hour speeches peppered with expressions such as "I'm as unhappy as a lumberjack who lost his axe."

"My father was a farmer, and I don't have a university doctorate. But I studied at the university of hard knocks, and I helped the voters in my riding," he once said.

Mr. LaSalle was born on Aug. 6, 1929, in the village of Saint-Paul, northeast of Montreal, one of 13 children in a farmer's family.

He dropped out of school at 14 and worked odd jobs. By his mid-20s, he got a job playing hockey and promoting cigarettes for a tobacco company. He was mayor of the small town of Crabtree from 1957 to 1965.

A member of the secretive nationalist Order of Jacques-Cartier, he was a federalist but one who believed in a special status for Quebec as one of the two founding nations.

In the 1960s he was active in provincial politics with the former Union Nationale party.

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Mr. LaSalle ran unsuccessfully for the federal Conservatives in 1965. In 1968, the year Trudeaumania swept Canada, Mr. LaSalle got himself elected.

Speaking no English, feeling isolated and at odds with his party's constitutional views, he decided to sit as an independent and was re-elected in 1972 with a majority of more than 5,000 votes.

He was wooed back to the Tories and was Minister of Supply and Services in Joe Clark's brief minority government.

In the 1980 election, Mr. LaSalle was the only Conservative MP left in Quebec. He went back to provincial politics and was named leader of the Union Nationale in January, 1981.

By April, the Union Nationale had been trounced in the Quebec election. Five months later, Mr. LaSalle succeeded himself in a by-election in his old federal riding.

After Brian Mulroney came into power in 1984, Mr. LaSalle became Public Works Minister.

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He oversaw a "godfather" system by which the 17 Quebec ridings that elected a Liberal each had a Conservative MP looking after the interests of constituents.

Things unravelled in 1986, when one of those godfathers, MP Michel Gravel, was charged with influence peddling and fraud.

Mr. Gravel claimed that he had funnelled political kickbacks to Mr. LaSalle, an allegation later dispelled in court.

Then two members of Mr. LaSalle's political staff turned out to have criminal records.

In 1987, Mr. LaSalle resigned from cabinet, citing health reasons. He didn't run in the following election.

A full obituary will run in tomorrow's paper

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