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Report On Business Jacques Parizeau leaves a complicated economic legacy in Quebec

Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau speaks in Montreal on March 2, 2013. Mr. Parizeau passed away Monday evening. He was 84.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

He was described by one colleague as "the only professional finance minister in Canada."

His Savile Row-style three-piece suits and calm, well-fed banker's manner helped offset René Lévesque's dishevelled, fidgety appearance.

He was an economic nationalist and staunch Keynesian who had a knack for elevating the normally dry budget speech into an erudite presentation reflective of his training as an economics professor, a calling he loved.

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But Jacques Parizeau was also notorious for running up huge budget deficits in his time as finance minister in the Parti Québécois government from 1976 to 1984 and cynically trying to buy the Yes vote for separation with taxpayer goodies and lavish contracts with the public service. Some of the innovative schemes he and his team cooked up to help boost Quebec's economic development sometimes came a cropper.

Mr. Parizeau passed away Monday evening. He was 84.

A scion of Montreal's francophone haute bourgeoisie, Mr. Parizeau returned to Quebec with a doctorate from the London School of Economics in hand. In the 1950s, he taught at Montreal's École des Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC) and did some consulting work. He also had stints as a researcher for the Bank of Canada in Ottawa and for the Porter Royal Commission on the banking and financial system.

After acting as consultant and adviser to Liberal Premier Jean Lesage's government in the 1960s, Mr. Parizeau ended up as a full-time senior civil servant who was a key player in many of the major initiatives that came to define Quebec's so-called Quiet Revolution and contributed to the creation of a francophone business class.

"For all intents and purposes, the Quiet Revolution consisted of three or four ministers, twenty civil servants and consultants – and 50 chansonniers," Mr. Parizeau once quipped.

Among the era's highlights were the 1962 creation of the Société générale de financement (SGF), the financial arm of the government whose mission was to fund homegrown businesses and lessen Quebec's reliance on foreign capital.

Mr. Parizeau also played a central role in the 1965 creation of the controversial Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the pension fund giant with the dual mandate of investing for solid returns while also promoting the province's economic development. It grew into a heavyweight in the province and continues to be attacked by critics for having undue influence in financial and business circles.

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In 1961, Mr. Parizeau advised Mr. Lévesque, a Liberal minister, on the nationalization of Quebec's private electricity companies and the creation of Hydro-Québec, another 800-pound gorilla of an institution that helped nurture local engineering know-how and companies.

Notorious for his straight-shooting style, Mr. Parizeau got into hot water with some ministers and government officials when he criticized the clubby bond syndicate outside Quebec that had a stranglehold on the sale of the province's bonds. The syndicate was opened up somewhat after then-revenue minister Eric Kierans agreed with Mr. Parizeau's take on the situation.

As finance minister, he increased borrowing and sent the deficit soaring. After implementing tax hikes for income earners above the $30,000 bracket, provoking a not-unexpected backlash, Mr. Parizeau dubbed it the "revolt of the rich."

In 1978, he and his team launched the Quebec Stock Savings Plan, which offered tax deductions to individuals who invested in Quebec companies, a move designed to encourage businesses to publicly list their shares on the stock exchange. Although the QSSP enabled the development of some highly successful companies, such as tour packager Transat A.T. Inc., dairy giant Saputo Inc. and information technology services firm CGI Group Inc., it also resulted in dozens of failures and lost investors' savings as smaller outfits unfit for public listing crashed and burned.

In the 1995 lead-up to the nerve-jangling second referendum on Quebec separation, Mr. Parizeau – now premier – engineered Plan O (for obligation, or bond). In the event of a Yes win, the PQ government had access to a $17-billion pool (including Caisse money) to cheaply buy back Quebec bonds as well as restore investor confidence should a massive selloff occur.

"All of Quebec Inc., it's [Mr. Parizeau] who was behind all of that," former PQ colleague and minister Louise Harel said on Tuesday.

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