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Former premier Louis J. Robichaud, once described as the architect of modern New Brunswick, has died after a brief battle with cancer.

The small-town Acadian lawyer who transformed a divided and backward province into a thriving bilingual and bicultural society, died Thursday in hospital near the village of Saint-Antoine, the same place where he was born 79 years ago.

Mr. Robichaud, Liberal premier of New Brunswick from 1960 to 1970 and a member of the Senate from 1973 to 2000, was surrounded by family and friends in his final days.

Mr. Robichaud leaves his wife, Jacqueline, three children - Paul, René and Monique - and several grandchildren.

He was predeceased by his first wife, Lorraine, and a son, Jean-Claude.

In honour of Mr. Robichaud, the legislature adjourned until next week.

Robert Pichette, Mr. Robichaud's former deputy minister in the premier's office and a lifelong friend, said Canada has lost one of its most courageous politicians.

"His impact is enormous," Mr. Pichette said in an interview. "His death doesn't close an era - it's still with us. We are living in the New Brunswick Louis Robichaud did so much to shape."

Mr. Pichette said the cancer was discovered only a few weeks ago. He said Mr. Robichaud was preparing to leave for his annual winter vacation in Florida when he decided to have a nagging back pain checked by doctors.

He said the cancer was already out of control by the time doctors confirmed its presence.

"He was lucid and aware of his situation," Mr. Pichette said. "He handled it very well."

Mr. Robichaud, known as "Little Louis" to many New Brunswick residents because of his short stature, is perhaps best known for introducing the province's Official Languages Act, which made New Brunswick Canada's only officially bilingual province.

Mr. Robichaud was the province's first Acadian premier.

"Language rights are more than legal rights," he said in 1969 when he introduced the legislation. "They are precious cultural rights, going deep into the revered past and touching the historic traditions of all our people."

When Mr. Robichaud assumed power in 1960, at the age of 34, New Brunswick was a rural backwater fraught with poverty and illiteracy, especially in the French-speaking north.

There were more than 1,100 taxing authorities throughout the province. Even cows and chickens were taxed, and at widely differing rates.

There were 422 school districts, each with its own educational standards and pay scales for teachers.

Social welfare systems, based on 18th-century poor laws, varied so much that a single mother in Chatham might receive $45 a month while a mother in nearby Neguac got only $7.

On Jan. 1, 1967, sweeping legislation introduced by Mr. Robichaud changed all that.

Thirty-four school districts replaced the 422 feuding, ill-equipped bodies; centralized taxation assessment was put in place; and the government took control of essential services.

"The change was so overwhelming in the province that we are still reaping the benefits of it today," Mr. Pichette said.

For his part, Mr. Robichaud was described by friends as a wily politician but a modest man, who was devoted to his family and to his province.

"First I'll be a New Brunswicker," he once said. "Then I'll be a Canadian, and finally I'll be a Liberal."

Mr. Pichette said Mr. Robichaud was never afraid to force change and defend his decisions.

He even stood up to the daunting K.C. Irving, the industrial giant who founded a business empire in New Brunswick that is now one the wealthiest in the world.

Mr. Irving did not like some of the tax changes brought in by Mr. Robichaud, but the premier stood his ground.

"He was one of the best premiers we have ever had," Mr. Pichette said. "He didn't mind making tough decisions."