Skip to main content

Bernard Landry, left, shakes hands with Jacques Parizeau, right, as Lucien Bouchard looks on during a ceremony of the Ordre national du Québéc on June 19, 2008, at the Quebec Legislature. During the 1995 Quebec referendum, Mr. Landry played arbiter between these two rivals and without his intervention, what is known as the virage that saw Mr. Bouchard replace Mr. Parizeau as the leader of the Yes campaign might never have happened.

JACQUES BOISSINOT/The Canadian Press

For sheer drama, few years in Canadian politics can ever match 1995, the federalist annus horribilis that saw Quebec sovereigntists come within a whisker of victory in a fall referendum.

As a Le Devoir reporter at the time, I now realize I was living a journalist’s dream. Day after day was filled with the wrenching political twists and turns of a country whose very existence hung in the balance. I got to see all the players up close. But while Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard got most of the headlines, it was Bernard Landry who made the biggest impression on me.

Mr. Landry, who died on Tuesday at 81, may well be recorded in the history books as a former Parti Québécois premier. But he made his biggest mark as a steady sovereigntist foot soldier under Mr. Parizeau in the run-up to the 1995 referendum and as Mr. Bouchard’s economic minister-of-everything in the postreferendum years leading up to his own 2001-03 premiership.

Story continues below advertisement

Few anecdotes encapsulate Mr. Landry more completely than his declaration in March, 1995, that he would oppose the spring referendum that some sovereigntists were then pushing for, but which polls showed the Yes side would lose. “I do not wish to be the second-in-command of the Light Brigade, who was exterminated in 20 minutes in Crimea due to the irresponsibility of his commanders,” Mr. Parizeau’s then-deputy premier told reporters on the sidelines of the travelling commission the PQ had created to help draft the referendum question.

The reference left journalists gathered at the isolated Manoir Montmorency, including myself, scrambling for context. We were stuck miles from Quebec City in the pre-Google era. Some of us didn’t even have cellphones. But those who did placed frantic calls back to their newsrooms. It turned out Mr. Landry was referring to the 1854 Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in which British troops were sent to the slaughter by their own commanders. A close reading of that event showed that Mr. Landry had meticulously chosen this analogy. It was uncanny.

Indeed, no politician kept journalists on their toes more than Mr. Landry. Learned doesn’t begin to describe him. He was among the last generation of Quebec politicians to come up through the province’s strict collèges classiques and he was a model of intellectual discipline. He didn’t need talking points and would look down on any politician who did. He sprinkled his sentences with Latin phrases that many considered eccentric, but which revealed his depth of thinking.

Mr. Bouchard may have been a brilliant orator, but even sovereigntist diehards understood he was acting most of the time. Mr. Parizeau may have had the undying loyalty of the PQ base, but Yes strategists knew he was far too unpredictable to win over soft nationalists. Mr. Landry was the real deal. There was nothing remotely plastic about Mr. Landry. Unlike Mr. Bouchard, he believed in Quebec sovereignty with all his heart. But unlike Mr. Parizeau, he was not reckless going about it.

It was Mr. Landry who played arbiter between these two rivals. Without his intervention, the so-called virage that saw the more popular Mr. Bouchard replace Mr. Parizeau as the leader of the Yes campaign in the referendum of fall, 1995, may never have happened. Only Mr. Landry could stand up to Mr. Parizeau.

Mr. Landry clashed endlessly with sovereigntists on the left who envisioned a separate Quebec as a social-democratic paradise. For Mr. Landry, Quebec independence was conditional on its financial viability and, as finance minister under Mr. Bouchard, his first priority was balancing the books. He did that, and cut taxes, too. Instead of praise, it earned him the neo-liberal label and the enmity of many in his own party.

By the time Mr. Landry became premier in 2001, taking over from a disenchanted Mr. Bouchard, the sovereignty movement was clearly losing steam. Mr. Landry lost the 2003 election to Jean Charest’s Liberals. But before that, he had set an example for politicians across Canada by striking a deal with the Cree First Nation for resource development on their territory.

Story continues below advertisement

The agreement, known as the Peace of the Brave, “remains the greatest contribution to the reconciliation between our peoples, even before that word came into fashion,” New Democratic MP Romeo Saganash, a member of the Cree nation, wrote following Mr. Landry’s death.

He also renamed the May statutory holiday, known in Quebec since the 1920s as the Fête de Dollard, and Victoria Day in the rest of Canada. Since 2003, Quebeckers have called it the Journée nationale des Patriotes, in honour of the leaders of the 1837 Lower Canada Rebellion.

Mr. Landry remained a Quebec patriot to the end.

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