Skip to main content

Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau addresses party supporters after winning the provincial election in Quebec, in this September 12, 1994 file picture. Parizeau, a separatist who nearly succeeded in turning the French-speaking Canadian province into an independent country, has died. He was 84.Andy Clark/Reuters

Even if he had never entered politics, Jacques Parizeau would still be remembered for his role in the heady days of Quebec's Quiet Revolution, part of a group of mandarins who created key institutions such as the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.

Even if he had never become leader of the Parti Québécois, he would still be remembered as a major politician, a cabinet minister whose economic savvy and banker's suits lent credibility to Quebec's first separatist government.

But he was also a giant of the Quebec separatist movement who came within a hair of leading nationalists to victory in the referendum of 1995.

His wife, Lisette Lapointe, said the former Quebec premier died just before 8 p.m. on Monday from an undisclosed cause. He was 84.

Mr. Parizeau was known to have been ill frequently in recent years, but each time he bounced back – often to deliver a devastating indictment of his successors' failure to live up to the national dream.

As recently as April, during a respite from hospital care, Mr. Parizeau told an interviewer that the Parti Québécois has lost its soul in "the Byzantine discussions" of sovereignty strategy. He was sharp-witted if a bit frail. It was his last televised interview.

Mr. Parizeau served as Quebec premier for 16 months from 1994 to 1996 and was a senior minister in the early PQ governments of the 1970s and 80s. But he will always be known for engineering the 1995 sovereignty vote that came within 54,000 votes of victory.

If federal Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard's eloquence stirred the hearts of Quebeckers during the second referendum, it was Mr. Parizeau who rebuilt the PQ and diligently nurtured the movement back to vigour after it had withered in the 1980s.

For a few hours one autumn evening of 1995, it appeared that a new, French-speaking country would emerge.

Then the final numbers were tallied and he saw that his life's work had come up short. In a fit of pique, he uttered the phrase that would blemish his legacy. "We were defeated, by what? By money and ethnic votes, essentially," he said on stage.

The next day, he announced he would resign, citing a prior pledge that he would quit if his side lost the referendum.

He found himself in the humbling position of having to deny that, as tactfully couched by a reporter, his "usually good judgment [was] clouded by alcohol."

"I used words that were strong last night. But they underline a reality that exists," he insisted.

In the ensuing years, as his successors struggled and prevaricated, Mr. Parizeau became a source of inspiration for committed separatists who felt that his clear, unalloyed commitment to independence showed that it was the best medicine to revive their movement's fervour.

Outside the party, the ache from his referendum-night remarks lingered.

Mr. Parizeau told the documentarymaker Francine Pelletier of his annoyance that he was deemed unworthy because of a slip of the tongue while Pierre Trudeau, who had invoked the War Measures Act in 1970, could be lauded as a great man. "I never threw anybody in jail. But I am called a fascist, a racist and an intolerant," he said.

Behind the public figure who spoke with bombast and made decisions authoritatively was a thin-skinned man. While opposition leader, during the PQ's doldrum days in 1989, he stormed out of a press-conference room at the legislature when no reporter showed up in person. "I, too, exist," he complained.

His British affectations, his chortling at his own jokes and his self-satisfied professorial tone gave much fodder for cartoonists, comedians and foes. In person, he was formal, demanding and abrasive when people didn't meet his standards.

Journalists and staff referred to him as "Monsieur" and one unlucky CBC Television reporter who addressed him by the informal pronoun "tu" got an icy glare as he walked away.

His long-time aide, Jean Royer, described how Mr. Parizeau conducted oral exams while he taught economics at HEC Montréal business school. If students ran out of things to say, Mr. Parizeau would cross his arms and stare at them until the allotted time ran out.

He had an old-fashioned outlook, proudly boasting that he was a member of the bourgeoisie. But, having made his first steps in public life in the 1960s, he believed in state intervention and considered himself a social democrat.

Jacques Léon Joseph Parizeau was born in Montreal on Aug. 9, 1930, the eldest of the three sons of Germaine (née Biron) and Gérard Parizeau.

His was one of the oldest families to have settled in New France. His ancestor Jean Dalpé dit Parisot was a soldier with the Carignan-Salières Regiment that King Louis XIV dispatched to the colony in 1665.

By the 20th century, the Parizeaus, once farmers, were part of Montreal's elite. His father founded a major insurance brokerage firm. His mother was a feminist trailblazer who campaigned to give women the right to vote in provincial elections.

As a teen, he dabbled in communism. But he eventually followed a more conventional path, graduating from HEC and obtaining a doctorate at the London School of Economics, where he studied under James Meade, a future Nobel laureate.

The economist Richard Lipsey, who studied at LSE at the same time, remembered Mr. Parizeau as a cultured, generous fellow student who took Mr. Lipsey and his wife to French restaurants.

Mr. Parizeau often arrived early and would wait for the Lipseys at a pub, Mr. Lipsey wrote in his autobiography. "We would find him, pint of beer in hand, dressed immaculately in a pinstriped suit with a bowler hat and furled umbrella, reading the Times, and surrounded by beer-drinking, Andy-Capp-style British working men."

Returning to Quebec, Mr. Parizeau became a professor at HEC and also worked as a researcher for the Bank of Canada. A few years later, a time of change began in Quebec when Jean Lesage's Liberals took power.

In 1961, Mr. Parizeau was recruited to be an economic adviser to Mr. Lesage. He became part of a band of bright, young civil servants who would transform Quebec, overhauling departments and creating new agencies to modernize the province.

"We were about 10 people who belonged in about 15 departments. No one had an official title, except we had a finger in every pie," Mr. Parizeau told his biographer, Pierre Duchesne.

Mr. Parizeau was among those who planned Quebec's own venture-capital fund, the Société générale de financement. He helped crunch numbers when René Lévesque, who was then minister of natural resources, finalized the nationalization of electricity. Mr. Parizeau then was part of a team sent to New York to borrow $300-million to finance the project.

He was also instrumental in setting up the Quebec Pension Plan and was one of the main architects behind the Caisse de dépôt et placement, the province's pension-fund manager. In 1966, he was tasked with rationalizing government salaries, a process that eventually led to joint contract negotiations in the public sector.

Those initiatives buttressed his view that state intervention could help foster a viable Quebec economy. He had also become convinced that free enterprise had become concentrated in the hands of a small group of players and that the federal government was powerless before that reality.

He claimed that his views crystallized as he prepared a paper during a train trip to a conference in Banff, Alta., and he realized that federalism was not a sustainable system and Quebec would be better off on its own.

He joined the PQ in 1969 and lost his seat in two subsequent elections.

After the breakthrough election of 1976, he became part of the first PQ cabinet. For eight years, he was finance minister, in addition to stints as treasury board president and revenue minister.

He would boast that he cut off some American brokerage firms from handling Hydro-Québec and government bonds because they issued reports he considered unfair. "They tried to describe us as a Cuba of the North and frighten people. There was no way we would have taken it with a 'yes, bwana,'" he said.

He also tangled with his federal counterpart, Jean Chrétien. In 1978, to stimulate the economy, Mr. Chrétien had suggested that provinces cut their sales taxes across the board, with Ottawa compensating them for two-thirds of the lost revenues.

Instead, Quebec removed the tax in selected areas of its choosing, then asked for a full compensation. Mr. Chrétien, who was seen as being outwitted by Mr. Parizeau, complained that the Quebec minister was duplicitous and had misled him into believing he was in agreement with Ottawa's proposal.

After the Yes side lost the 1980 referendum campaign, Mr. Lévesque gambled on the "beau risque" of seeking a constitutional accord in 1984. Mr. Parizeau resigned from cabinet along with several PQ members of the National Assembly.

He returned to politics in 1988 and became PQ leader.

Party membership had sunk to 60,000, less than half of what it was three years before. The PQ had a debt of more than $500,000 and the party trailed the Liberals by 20 percentage points in the opinion polls.

The PQ was defeated in the 1989 election, but nationalist fervour started heating up again as the Meech Lake Accord unravelled, then the Charlottetown Accord also foundered.

Shortly after he became PQ leader, Mr. Parizeau and his close advisers discussed the possibility of trying to have a presence in the federal Parliament. Federal ministers such as Monique Vézina and Benoît Bouchard were courted.

Instead, it was another Bouchard, Lucien, the environment minister and long-time Mulroney friend, who contacted Mr. Parizeau's office. At a PQ council meeting in May, 1990, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the first referendum, Mr. Parizeau stunned journalists and delegates by disclosing a telegram of support from Mr. Bouchard.

This ended Mr. Bouchard's career as a federalist politician. Mr. Bouchard would lead a new party in Ottawa, the Bloc Québécois, creating an unusual dynamic where the sovereignty ship appeared to have two captains.

Mr. Parizeau remained at the helm, however, for it was his party that would have the power to enact independence.

The PQ returned to power in 1994, setting the stage for the second referendum. Mr. Parizeau and his wife, Ms. Lapointe, moved into a Tudor-style Quebec City residence that wags nicknamed L'Élisette, a play on France's Élysée presidential palace.

Mr. Parizeau hurt his cause when he met diplomats and, ever a lover of bons mots, explained that Quebeckers would be trapped like "lobsters in a pot" once the independence process started. The remark got back to federalist strategists who promptly leaked it to the media.

Mr. Bouchard then blindsided Mr. Parizeau in a speech, calling for a "virage," a call for formal economic ties between Canada and a sovereign Quebec.

Ultimately, Mr. Parizeau had to swallow his pride and yielded the spotlight to the more popular Mr. Bouchard.

Mr. Parizeau's tactical cunning combined with Mr. Bouchard's eloquence and personal narrative – he nearly died of a flesh-eating bacteria 10 months before the vote and campaigned on a prosthetic leg and cane – proved nearly irresistible for Quebeckers. But resist they did, and Canada was never the same.

After quitting politics, Mr. Parizeau busied himself with running a vineyard in France and being an occasional thorn in the side of PQ premiers, popping up periodically to criticize their inaction on sovereignty.

The father of two children, Isabelle, a lawyer, and Bernard, a doctor, Mr. Parizeau was first married to Polish-born novelist Alice Poznanska, who died in 1990. In 1992, he married Ms. Lapointe, a former aide who went on to forge her own political career as a member of the Quebec National Assembly.

To submit an I Remember:

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe