Yvon Charbonneau, who died in Florida last month at the age of 75, was a workhorse, a militant and always a stickler for proper French. The former French professor turned president of Quebec's main teacher's union turned politician could be found in his office day and night, and even during Christmas, toiling on behalf of his students, union members and, much later, his constituents. Throughout his life, his motto might as well have been: "do what is right, not expedient, no matter the cost."
"He was the conscience and the hope of the workers' movement," said Louise Chabot, the president of the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, the name given to Mr. Charbonneau's union, the Centrale de l'enseignement du Québec, in 2000 to reflect that its membership encompassed more than just teachers. "He was a leader who had vision and rigorous standards."
In the spring of 1972, Mr. Charbonneau's convictions were put to the test when he and two other labour leaders, Louis Laberge and Marcel Pepin, were sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of court after they defied a court injunction that ordered their members to end a general strike that had paralyzed the province. Even as Quebec provincial police officers arrived to march them away, he stood fast before a news conference. "The judgment is done," he said. "It seems to be in effect immediately so allow those here who are members of the [police force] come forward to arrest us."
The three leaders were sent to d'Orsainville prison, near Quebec City, but they weren't in there for long: During their incarceration, the strikes increased both in furor and number, and they were released on a provisional basis so that negotiations could continue. In February, 1973, once everything had settled down, they were sent back to prison, released for good after serving two months.
In 2014, Mr. Charbonneau would tell a crew from the web series Les Militantes that standing firm next to Mr. Laberge and Mr. Pepin was an opportunity to learn from the greats, comparing his experience with that of someone lucky enough to learn tennis from a pro such as Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
He would also refuse to blame the provincial government for the heavy sentence, saying instead that it was the judge who ordered the three men to cool their heels behind bars for a year and that the government learned of it at the same time they did.
"The entire world was pressuring them," he continued. "It wasn't good for Quebec's image."
It may have seemed counter-intuitive when Mr. Charbonneau agreed more than 20 years later to run for the provincial Liberal Party in the north Montreal riding of Bourassa, but Daniel Johnson, the premier at the time, said party organizers were looking for candidates from all walks of life to field in the next election.
"Close associates of mine made a cold call to him and it worked. He said he would do it," said Mr. Johnson, whose government would fall to Jacques Parizeau and the Parti Québécois in September, 1994, even as Mr. Charbonneau won his own riding. "We knew he would be comfortable with a federalist party because he was not a separatist. And he had great knowledge about provincial societal matters, including the environment."
He was always "impressively prepared," Mr. Johnson continued, and an "efficient, constructive, empowering teammate."
Bespectacled, with a balding pate and tight smile, Mr. Charbonneau wore a dour expression that belied his deadpan sense of humour, continued Mr. Johnson, now a counsel at the McCarthy Tétrault law firm. On one trip to Ottawa, for example, he recalled a meal at a Thai restaurant before meeting with representatives from the Prime Minister's Office about constitutional matters.
"I took a spoonful of the soup I ordered and bit into what I thought was a small French green bean," he said. "As my face turned red and a rainbow of other colours, Yvon looked at me and, without missing a beat, said 'I believe that's quite hot. It's what they usually put in soup.'"
Then, he turned back to continue with his own meal, nary a bead of sweat on his forehead.
Yvon Charbonneau was born on July 11, 1940, in Mont-Saint-Michel, a tiny community in the Laurentian Mountains about 245 kilometres northwest of Montreal. He was the only son of Léopold Charbonneau, a carpenter, and the former Yvonne Beauchamp; he had one sister, Marie-Paule, who would become a nun.
The family moved about 35 kilometres south, to the larger community of Mont-Laurier, where young Yvon studied at the venerable Séminaire de Mont-Laurier. There, he honed his love of the French language, which, after obtaining a teaching certificate, he taught from 1961 to 1968 – the same year he completed a master's in French literature at the University of Montreal.
Ever curious, in 1980, Mr. Charbonneau got another master's degree, this time in political science, from Laval University in Quebec City; the following year, he completed the class work necessary for a PhD at the University of Quebec at Montreal.
Mr. Charbonneau served two stints as president of the CEQ, from 1970 to 1978 and 1982 to 1988. After leaving that world, he headed up a provincial commission of inquiry into hazardous waste and then worked for two years for SNC-Lavalin as a vice-president in its public relations division, with a special expertise in environmental issues.
He was working as a consultant when he made the jump to politics, drawn in by Mr. Johnson's Liberals. Three years later, he moved to the federal stage, becoming the member of Parliament for the riding of Anjou-Rivière-des-Prairies, from 1997 to 2004. During his stint in Ottawa, his duties included serving as parliamentary secretary to the deputy prime minister and the minister of health.
After leaving politics, he was named Canada's permanent ambassador to UNESCO – a post he held until he retired in 2006.
Mr. Charbonneau died on April 22 after suffering a stroke two weeks earlier. He leaves his wife, Raja Hammoud; his children, Alain, Christine and Michèle Charbonneau, and Yasmina Charbonneau-Hammoud; and four grandchildren.