Skip to main content

Jean Lapierre (right) with Outremont Liberal MP Martin Cauchon at Lapierre's nomination meeting in Montreal in 2004.

Ian Barrett/The Canadian Press

On the sunny day before the recent Quebec budget in the shadow of the National Assembly, Jean Lapierre grabbed the arm of one of the many political reporters he had taken under his wing over the years. He hadn't seen the man in a while, but details were at his fingertips: How's the newspaper? How are the kids? Pay your daycare bill yet?

The former member of Parliament turned king of Quebec pundits then told the story of the political impact a special daycare levy was having at tax time. Parents were up in arms over the size of the bills. The Liberal government had underestimated their anger. He recounted how his daughter Marie-Anne, a journalist too, was facing the same struggle to pay the bill. But it wasn't just in the family: Mr. Lapierre always had his finger on the pulse of the people and their blood pressure was rising against the Liberals. "I think they'll have to do something," he said.

With that, he was off for dinner with one of his many powerful contacts at one of his regular haunts on Grande Allée. And the very next day, the Liberals announced they would soften that daycare levy for a second child – one of that government's very few backtracks.

Story continues below advertisement

Jean Lapierre died in an airplane crash on Tuesday alongside his wife, Nicole, and three of his four siblings. They were flying on a small private airplane to mourn his father, Raymond C. Lapierre, who died earlier this week at his hometown on the Magdalen Islands. Jean Lapierre was 59, his father 83.

Mr. Lapierre was one of the unorthodox and endearing media and political personalities of our time. He was a radio and television host and commentator for about 22 years and an MP for 16, but he was much more than either job title.

He was a guru in Quebec for politicians, pundits and the public, delivering insight and the occasional scoop on the airwaves a dozen times a day. In the 2014 Quebec election it was calculated he had more air time than any politician, including media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau, then-premier Pauline Marois and the man who would replace her, Philippe Couillard. For one earlier provincial election, he had a bus with his image plastered on the side that he used to tour the province and report for a TV station.

He crossed Quebec's linguistic and regional divides like few others, hopping among the most popular programs on radio and television in English and French in Montreal and across the province from 7 a.m. until suppertime. He almost always broke for lunch because that's where he often got the goods.

Politicians and pundits hung on his every word. The politically indifferent could be entertained by his folksiness. "He was as happy as a dog riding in the back of a pickup truck," he once described a newly minted cabinet minister.

He was a remarkable survivor. Few people cross the divide from politics to media – let alone twice. Even fewer could pull off the switch from federalist to sovereigntist party and back to federalist in the hothouse of the referendum era and maintain respect and affection on both sides.

That history may have given him credibility he needed to criticize federalists and separatists. "Péquiste, Liberal and Caquiste would rage against him when he was on their case (and I had my turn) but they would applaud when he would make his caustic commentary against their adversary," recalled Jean-François Lisée, a Parti Québécois member of the legislature who actually had several turns as Mr. Lapierre's target. "I've been great friends with him, there've also been times when we had fallen out. He always knew how to reach out.

Story continues below advertisement

"We miss him already."

Jean-Charles Lapierre was born May 7, 1956, in Bassin, a village in Quebec's remote Magdalen Islands now amalgamated into the town of Havre Aubert. The eldest of the five children of Raymond C. Lapierre and Lucie Cormier, he grew up in modest circumstances, to which he attributed his work ethic.

In a 2002 profile for L'actualité, Mr. Lapierre recalled how his father worked for a car dealership that went bankrupt.

"During the night, I heard him cry. The next day, before we had left for school, he was already out to look for a job. He became a mechanic for Irving Oil. It made a big impression on me … maybe that's why I always worked."

After high school, he spent a year with an aunt who lived in Los Angeles County, where he learned English, then enrolled at a junior college in Granby, Que., where he caught the political bug.

He became president of the local federal Liberal youth wing, and caught the eye of a cabinet minister, André Ouellet, who was impressed with Mr. Lapierre's resourcefulness and made the 18-year-old a special assistant.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Lapierre then studied civil law at the University of Ottawa and, just after he was admitted to the Quebec bar in 1979, ran for Parliament and captured what had been a Créditiste seat in the riding of Shefford, near Montreal.

After serving as a parliamentary secretary for a number of ministers, Mr. Lapierre was appointed by John Turner to be minister of state for youth and for fitness and amateur sport in July, 1984. At the time, he was 28, the youngest federal cabinet minister in Canadian history.

His stint in government was short-lived because Brian Mulroney's Conservatives took office later that fall. Mr. Lapierre was re-elected and remained in the opposition benches.

He co-chaired Paul Martin's unsuccessful leadership bid in 1990 and left the Liberals because the new leader, Jean Chrétien, opposed the Meech Lake constitutional accord. As a Quebecker he felt "sad, humiliated and betrayed," he said as he left the Liberal caucus and sat as an independent in June, 1990.

The following month, he joined a fledgling group of former Liberal and Conservative MPs from Quebec who rallied behind Lucien Bouchard's leadership and became the Bloc Québécois. Mr. Lapierre became the parliamentary leader of the new party.

However, he was more of a nationalist than a sovereigntist. He left the Bloc in 1992, and began a career as a radio commentator, quickly becoming a favourite of journalists because he was well-connected and could deliver snappy soundbites.

Story continues below advertisement

He returned to federal politics in the 2004 general election, out of loyalty to Mr. Martin, who was now Liberal leader and prime minister. "I never saw myself as a separatist," Mr. Lapierre said at the time. "I saw myself as somebody who wanted to bring about a level playing field for Quebec."

Elected in the riding of Outremont, he was appointed minister of transport. Returning to federal politics took courage, as the Liberal Party was in the midst of the sponsorship scandal in Quebec, said Mr. Martin's former director of communications.

"Few people appreciated the personal beating he endured in Quebec political circles as he moved to clean up the mess left by the sponsorship scandal," said Scott Reid. "He could have easily opted to take pass, avoid the fight and not run for federal office. But he refused that route. Jean Lapierre was a warrior."

Mr. Lapierre quit politics again in 2007 and went back to being a political analyst. Mr. Lapierre's own description of his activities can be found in the judgment in the libel case that he won against Pierre Sormany, a Radio-Canada public-affairs director.

"Over the years, he [Mr. Lapierre] has refined his role as a political commentator, which puts him at the crossroad between journalism and show business, where he mines his troublemaking, provocative side, to use his own words," said the 2012 ruling by Quebec Superior Court Judge Michel Yergeau.

The judge found that Mr. Sormany had wrongly linked Mr. Lapierre to a controversial construction boss. In what could have been a summary of his career, Mr. Lapierre told the court that he had to sue because it was threatening "all that I built in a life where I worked like a dog."

Mr. Lapierre did indeed work like few others. "He spent his weekends at party meetings. He listened to CPAC [the parliamentary channel] on sunny Sundays. I don't know many people who do that," said Paul Arcand, a morning host on 98.5 who was Mr. Lapierre's close collaborator for much of his broadcast career.

Mr. Lapierre's ability to connect with people was also unique, Mr. Arcand said: "He loved people. His wife, Nicole, always told me: "He's so tiring with that!' Strangers come up and talk to him constantly and he genuinely loves it."

Former Newfoundland MP Brian Tobin, who was first elected to the House in 1980, one year after Mr. Lapierre, remembered the days when they were called the "young Turks" in the Liberal caucus.

"We talked about the needs of people for whom the good life was not a guarantee, and for whom the federal government was extremely important," Mr. Tobin said. "We became co-conspirators in those days, making sure the voice of rural Quebec and rural Newfoundland was being heard."

The former Newfoundland premier said that as a political commentator, Mr. Lapierre knew what he was talking about, like a great hockey player who becomes a top-notch analyst.

"His eyes glittered with energy, with intelligence, with enthusiasm and with the joy of whatever battle he was in and whatever cause he was espousing," Mr. Tobin said. "Jean did it all out, full passion."

Mr. Lapierre put out a note on his Twitter and Facebook pages on Monday to announce that his father had just passed away after a long fight against Parkinson's disease. Responding to a note of condolences from a Globe and Mail reporter, Mr. Lapierre said Tuesday morning that along with other family members, "we are alternating between tears and laughter as we go over all of the good times we spent with our father."

Mr. Lapierre's success depended on his work ethic: He woke up early every morning to pore over the day's headlines and speak on the phone with some of his key contacts to hone the sharp one-liners that he would deliver to his faithful audiences.

Mr. Lapierre traded in rumours with other journalists and political contacts, regaling his interlocutors with funny stories or juicy gossip in exchange for their insight. He offered a rare mix for a political commentator: a down-home charm that came from his roots in the Magdalen Islands, coupled with his years of experience in politics and his intimate knowledge of the business world and the top movers and shakers in "Quebec Inc."

He also used those contacts to build a thriving consulting business while he was a commentator, a status that occasionally raised eyebrows among journalism purists but was largely brushed aside by his legions of fans and colleagues.

"Over the last 10 years, Jean Lapierre was by far the political commentator who had the biggest reach in Quebec," said Jean-François Dumas, the owner of a firm that closely monitors media coverage across the country.

He didn't get there just with bon mots. In 2014 he published a book now translated into English called The Morning After with esteemed political writer Chantal Hébert.

They recounted the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum and delivered new insight into infighting at the top of sovereigntist ranks and disarray in the federalist camp as they faced what turned out to be a narrow victory.

During election campaigns, Mr. Lapierre loved to go on the road, renting his own van to go from riding to riding to meet directly with voters, with shopping malls one of his favourite locations.

"Being on the road with him gave a clear reading of the pulse of the population," said Alec Castonguay, a Montreal magazine writer who spent weeks driving across Quebec with Mr. Lapierre during various elections. "We felt the Orange Wave in the 2011 federal election before the pollsters, by meeting directly with voters."

Mr. Lapierre leaves his children, Marie-Anne and Jean-Michel, his mother, Lucie Cormier, and a sister who lives in the Magdalen Islands and was the sole sibling who wasn't aboard the plane.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter