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Federal Energy Minister Marcel Masse answers questions outside the House of Commons in April, 1987. During his time in Ottawa, Mr. Masse handled senior portfolios such as communications, energy and defence.Reuters

Marcel Masse was born in a house that once belonged to Louis Cyr, the Victorian-era strongman who was an early torch-bearer for French-Canadian pride.

Like his legendary predecessor in that gable-roofed house, Mr. Masse lived a life that took him from the Quebec hinterland to foreign shores and back, always feeling that he was on a mission to assert the culture and dignity of his people.

A precocious provincial minister in the 1960s, he later joined Brian Mulroney's grand coalition of Quebec nationalists and anglophone conservatives that swept to power in 1984.

In Ottawa, where he handled senior portfolios such as communications, energy and defence, he was known for his interest in arts and culture, his Quebec-focused priorities and his spendthrift, imperious style.

He died last month at 78, surrounded by family in his home in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts.

A 1992 profile in The Globe and Mail compared the politician to a temperamental, solitary feline.

"Like a black cat, dark and inscrutable, Marcel Masse prowls on the edge of the Mulroney cabinet, back arched, tail flicking. Moody, unpredictable and often absent, he walks the line between cabinet solidarity and insubordination, ministerial prerogative and abuse of privilege, self-confidence and arrogance," the story said.

After the failure of the Meech Lake accord, he campaigned for the Yes side in the 1995 referendum.

The former minister of the Crown was thus eulogized both by Quebec separatists and by the 18th prime minister of Canada.

The nationalist Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste praised him as "an exemplary patriot" and former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Jean-François Lisée wrote that even when Mr. Masse was in Ottawa, "We could talk almost as if between fellow independentists."

Mr. Mulroney meanwhile said, "We've lost a great man."

He praised Mr. Masse's contribution during the negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The former prime minister said Mr. Masse helped craft the clause that exempted most cultural industries from the trade pact.

Mr. Masse was born on May 27, 1936, in Saint-Jean-de-Matha, a village northeast of Montreal. He was the eldest child of Angéline Clermont and Rosaire Masse, a surgeon.

He was elected class president in Grade 5, when he was 11, and every subsequent year until he went to university.

After earning a teaching diploma and taking history at the University of Montreal, he studied political science in Paris and London.

When he returned home in 1962, Quebec was in the middle of the Quiet Revolution.

A couple of years earlier, Jean Lesage's Liberals had ended the 16-year conservative rule of the Union Nationale and the first major separatist party, the Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale (RIN), had its founding convention.

Mr. Masse worked as a history teacher and was active in the local chapter of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste.

After flirting with the RIN, he joined the Union Nationale after being introduced to party leader Daniel Johnson Sr.

Mr. Masse helped craft the party platform and won a seat in the 1966 election, when the Union Nationale returned to power. The 30-year-old Mr. Masse was appointed to cabinet, the youngest minister ever at the time.

In four years, he had six different portfolios, including intergovernmental affairs, where his party's nationalist vision clashed with Pierre Trudeau's government.

He was the minister tasked with accompanying Charles de Gaulle during the 1967 visit where the French President shouted "Vive le Québec libre" from a balcony.

Two years later, he was involved in a similar incident when he led a Quebec delegation that competed with Canada's at a conference in Niger. A speech by then-Canadian secretary of state Gérard Pelletier was interrupted by singer Pauline Julien shouting "Vive le Québec libre." Mr. Masse defended her, telling reporters that she expressed "an idea shared by part of our people."

The Union Nationale was defeated in the 1970 election. Mr. Masse ran for the party leadership but lost by 23 votes. He left provincial politics and was recruited by the Lavalin engineering firm to handle projects in Africa.

During his time as education minister, he had come to know his Ontario counterpart, William Davis, and kept close ties with the Big Blue Machine. He boasted that he was the first francophone admitted in Toronto's exclusive Albany Club.

He ran for the federal Tories in 1974 and 1980, losing each time. He also campaigned for the No side in the 1980 referendum.

Mr. Mulroney asked him to be a candidate again in 1984. Expecting to lose, he became part of the biggest landslide in a federal election.

He was appointed communications minister, the equivalent of today's Canadian heritage portfolio.

Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, a long-time friend, said Mr. Masse came to Ottawa "to shake up the cage" a little. One of his first moves was to order all ministerial briefings to him be written in French.

He enjoyed the perks of power, the chauffeured limousines, the government jets. "That's what they're for," he said.

His mandate started laboriously after he had to implement budget cuts to the CBC. However, by 1986, media reports of the time described better relations with the artistic community.

He helped set up the Public Lending Right Program, which pays authors a stipend for the use of their books by public libraries.

In a 2011 speech celebrating the program, the writer Andreas Schroeder recalled how he and another member of the Writer's Union of Canada lobbied Mr. Masse in a Toronto restaurant.

Mr. Masse asked how much the program would cost. Then, despite protests from his assistants, he said right away, "Well gentlemen, I think we can manage three million, don't you?"

He announced Ottawa's commitment to the program on Sept. 24, 1985. That evening, Mr. Mulroney learned the RCMP were investigating Mr. Masse over allegations he hadn't properly reported his electoral expenses.

He resigned, pending the outcome of the investigation. He was exonerated two months later and returned to cabinet.

The following spring, he was shuffled to the energy portfolio. "In retrospect, I should have left him in communications," Mr. Mulroney said in an interview.

Mr. Masse was back in communications in January, 1989. Again, his approach was idiosyncratic; generous to some, high-handed to others.

He doubled the budget of the National Gallery of Canada, enabling the controversial $1.8-million purchase of Barnett Newman's painting Voice of Fire.

When Yves Beauregard, director of the small Quebec historical review Cap-aux-Diamants, complained that he hadn't received support from the Canada Council for the Arts, Mr. Masse explained there was an arm's-length funding principle, but then made sure his office bought ads in the small magazine.

At the same time, Mr. Masse gave plenty of ammunition to opposition politicians in 1989 when he flew to Los Angeles to accept a special Academy Award given to the National Film Board.

His last federal portfolio was defence. Again, there were grumbles because he insisted on briefing papers in French and made sure Quebec got its share of procurement contracts.

In the Commons, Mr. Masse chose to use only French to answer questions put to him in English. He argued that if Don Mazankowski, the No. 2 man in cabinet, could answer all his questions in English, why couldn't he answer all questions in French?

He said he had come to Ottawa because of Mr. Mulroney's pledge to get Quebec to accept the constitution "with honour and enthusiasm."

During the Meech Lake negotiations, Mr. Masse was a fierce, passionate advocate for Quebec's interests. He was crestfallen when the deal failed in 1990.

By 1993, he quit cabinet and wouldn't run for re-election. "We can't eternally live in a country that doesn't satisfy us. And that's as true for English Canadians as it is to us," he said in an interview with Le Soleil.

After he campaigned for the Yes side in the 1995 referendum, the Parti Québécois government named him delegate-general in Paris. His last years were spent in a variety of projects promoting the arts.

Mr. Masse leaves his wife, Cécile Martin; a son, Jean-Martin; and a daughter, Marie-Hélène.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this article and an earlier digital version incorrectly said Mr. Masse was the first francophone defence minister. This online version has been corrected.

With files from Richard Cléroux in Ottawa.

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