Robert Bourassa (1933-1996) was Premier of the province of Quebec for two terms, 1970-1976 and 1985-1993. Bourassa's support for both nationalism and federalism made him an ambiguous leader. He coined the phrase distinct society to specifically identify Quebec's French bourgeois citizenry.
Robert Bourassa was born on July 14, 1933, to a lower middle-class family in Montreal's east end. His father, a federal civil servant, worked for the Montreal port authorities. From the age of 12, Bourassa knew he wanted to be a politician. He confided to a classmate, Jacques Godbout (now a well-known author and film director), that "one day, I'll be premier of Quebec." Bourassa served as premier of Quebec from 1970-76 and also from 1985-93. He died of cancer at age 63 on October 2, 1996, after battling the disease for six years.
Bourassa graduated from Quebec's prestigious Jesuit college, Jean-de-Brébeuf, in 1953. He earned his law degree, along with the Governor General's medal, from the University of Montreal (1956). A Royal Society of Canada scholarship led to a Master of Laws (LLM) in political economy from Oxford University (1959) and a Ford Foundation Scholarship from Harvard (1960) enabled him to earn a Masters degree in public finance and financial law. From 1960-63, Bourassa worked as an economic advisor and fiscal advisor to the Federal Ministry of Revenue and taught economics at the University of Ottawa.
Bourassa married Andrée Simard, daughter of the wealthy Simard shipbuilding family, in 1958. The marriage cemented his ties with the Liberal party and gave him crucial contacts in the business community. The Bourassa's had two children, a son and a daughter.
Bourassa served as secretary and director of research for the Quebec Royal Commission of Inquiry on Fiscal Policy from 1964-65. During this time he gained confidence and encouragement from Premier Jean Lesage and was elected as the Liberal member for the Mercier riding. He returned to Ottawa as advisor to the Ministry of Finance from 1965-66.
As a novice member of the Quebec National Assembly, Bourassa struggled in the wake of the Liberal party's 1966 electoral defeat to convince René Lévesque not to leave the party. Bourassa, who believed that Quebec should be independent, was convinced that effective political independence for Quebec could only be achieved through monetary and fiscal independence. However, Lévesque left the Liberal party in 1968 to become the founding leader of the Parti Québécois (PQ). Lévesque's coalition movement dedicated itself to achieving political independence for Quebec while continuing economic association with the rest of Canada. Bourassa and Lévesque remained political rivals for the rest of their careers.
The Liberal party, using the theme "Quebec au Travail, " won the 1970 provincial election and Bourassa became Quebec's youngest premier. After only six months in office, Bourassa faced a major crisis when the Front du Libération du Québec (FLQ) terrorists kidnapped the British trade commissioner, James Richard Cross, and the minister of immigration and labour, Pierre Laporte. The FLQ cited the government's refusal to negotiate release of FLQ members who had been jailed for acts of terrorism as the reason for the kidnappings. Premier Bourassa called upon the federal government's Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, to declare a state of apprehended insurrection and to invoke the War Measures Act. In response to the government's sending in military forces, the terrorists murdered Pierre Laporte. By the end of the October Crisis, the FLQ terrorists had been arrested and deported. Both the Bourassa and Trudeau governments suffered considerable political damage when it became known that nearly four hundred alleged separatists had been jailed by the Quebec provincial police without charges ever being made.
Bourassa's well-known and long-standing ambiguity between nationalism and federalism and between cultural/social sovereignity and economic feudalism surfaced during his first administration. When the Victoria Charter came up for ratification in 1971, Bourassa, in response to pressure from the Québécois neo-nationalists, refused to allow the Quebec government to ratify the charter. (The Victoria Charter entailed the patriation of the 1867 British North American Act, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and an amending formula that granted Quebec a veto over all future constitutional reforms. However, it did not entail any additional distribution of powers. The PQ and other francophones considered Quebec's independence in areas of immigration and communications essential for their "distinct society" and were staunchly opposed to ratification of the Charter.) Constitutional wrangling grew increasingly intense and bitter over the next two decades.
Bourassa's main achievements during his first two administrations resulted from his social, judicial, and economic policies. His government joined the national medicare plan and turned the provincial health and welfare system into the most progressive in North America. An Office of Consumer Protection, a Council on the Status of Women, and a Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms were created. Low-income groups were given access to a system of legal aid. The development of hydroelectric power along the rivers running into northwestern Quebec's James Bay provided economic growth for the entire province. Bourassa's achievements were rewarded by an overwhelming victory in the 1973 election with the Liberal party winning 102 of 110 seats.
Despite these achievements, the Bourassa government soon found itself facing a series of crises. Critics pointed to questionable patronage practices including support for government services and contracts which benefited friends of the Liberal party, mishandling of negotiations with militant, nationalistic public and para-public union centrals, massive cost overruns and scandals associated with the Montreal Olympics of 1976, and legislation which made French the official language of Quebec and streamed all immigrant children into French-language schools (Bill 22). When Bourassa called for an election in November of 1976, the Liberal party was out-maneuvered by the PQ. Consequently, Bourassa lost his seat in the Mercier riding and his party was reduced to 26 seats.
Within weeks, Bourassa resigned as leader of the Liberal party. He returned to teaching (Institut d'études européennes de Bruxells, Institut européen d'administration des affaires de Fontaineau, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and Laval University in Quebec City) and made speeches on the economy, the flaws of sovereignity-association, and the European economic and political community. He contended that Quebec had all the powers it required under the federal system to ensure "the pursuit of social progress, economic development and the cultural affirmation of Quebecers."
When Claude Ryan, Bourassa's successor in the Liberal party, lost the 1981 provincial election to PQ's René Lévesque, he resigned as leader of the Liberal party. This opened the door for Bourassa's return. He returned to politics as a more confident, mature leader, believing that his "most serious mistake in the 1970's was to have been too compromising" with his adversaries.
Indeed, Bourassa's timing could not have been better. The economy was just emerging from a very serious recession and voters related well to Bourassa's job-creating megaprojects. His promise to seek a constitutional reconciliation with Ottawa attracted many moderate nationalists away from the politically declining PQ. The Liberal party won five by-elections in 1983 and another four in 1984. With widespread popular support behind him, Bourassa refused to seek a seat in the National Assembly. Instead, he preferred to rebuild the Liberal party and prepare for the 1985 provincial election.
The 1985 election catapulted Bourassa and the Liberal party back into power with 99 of the Assembly's 122 seats and 56 percent of the popular vote. Bourassa, defeated in his own Mercier riding but secured a membership with the St. Laurent riding, had pulled off a remarkable comeback. The Liberal party established a powerful but fragile coalition of francophone, anglophone, and allophone business interests, middle-class and upper-class professionals, the farming community, and the working class.
By early 1986, Bourassa had set forth his government's five minimum conditions for Quebec's signing the Constitution Act of 1982: explicit recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society, " a provincial veto over all major constitutional changes, the entrenchment and extension of Quebec's control over immigration, severe curtailment of the national government's spending powers in areas of provincial jurisdiction, and the guarantee that Quebec could name three judges to the Supreme Court.
In 1987 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a long-time friend and ally of Bourassa, met with all eleven provincial premiers at Meech Lake. The purpose of the meeting was to grant unanimous approval to the 1987 Constitutional Accord, better known as the Meech Lake Accord. Working closely with Bourassa, Mulroney was at first able to gain support from all other ten premiers. After Bourassa steadfastly refused any and all proposed amendments and declared that the accord's failure would be interpreted as a rejection of Quebec, Mulroney postponed a first minister's meeting until early June. It was too late to get the unamended accord past the Manitoba legislature.
The predicted outcry of nationalist and separatist resentment in Quebec materialized immediately. However, a widespread public opposition to the Meech Lake Accord developed throughout English-speaking Canada, galvanized by Bill 178. Bourassa had promised to ease the most discriminatory aspects of Quebec's Charter of the French Language (Bill 101), but instead brought in Bill 178 which denied businesses the right to use exterior bilingual signage and severely restricted the nature and amount of interior bilingual signage. The Bill also invoked the "Notwithstanding clause" of the national charter to prevent the legislation from being contested in the courts.
English-speaking Canadians did not like the attack on the charter or Quebec's arrogant dismissal of the Supreme Court ruling. Rather than becoming the much vaunted symbol of national reconciliation, the Meech Accord was used by nationalist extremists in both linguistic communities to propagate their respective separatist agendas for the colleague of Canada.
Even with nationalist sentiments running at an all-time high, Bourassa and the Labor party had a relatively easy 1989 re-election. Partly in response to pressure from the Parti Québécois (with Jacques Parizeau as its party leader), Bourassa created the Allaire committee and gave it a mandate to identify and define "traditional demands" to be presented after agreement was reached on the Meech Lake Accord. The Allaire Report, published in 1991, demanded the transfer of extensive federal powers just to Quebec, but the report was set aside by Bourassa at the Liberal party's policy convention in 1992.
The Parti Québécois capitalized on this situation by forcing an ailing Bourassa, who had been diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 1990, to call a 1992 referendum on Quebec's constitutional future. Bourassa endorsed the Charlottetown constitutional accord which failed. At the time of his 1976 defeat to René Lévesque, Bourassa was described by a Liberal party colleague as "the most hated man in Quebec." He resigned as premier in 1993.
Although Bourassa's early political career was marked by ambiguity, by the end of his career Bourassa had clearly established his credentials as a federalist. In one of his final speeches Bourassa declared, "I have never been able to conceive how Quebec could profit by dividing Canada into three parts."
Bourassa's only book, Gouverner le Quibec, was released at a press conference in August, 1995. His book, which includes a transcription of four of his lectures given at the University de Montreal, traces highlights of his political career and provides a self-analysis of his strategies and decisions as Premier of Quebec. Bourassa died from malignant melanoma, a type of cancer, in 1996 at the age of 63.
Further Reading on Robert Bourassa
Additional information on Robert Bourassa can be found in Réal Bertrand, Robert Bourassa (Outremont, Québec: 1983); Andrew Cohen, A Deal Undone. The Making and Breaking of the Meech Lake Accord (Vancouver/Toronto: 1990); Graham Fraser, PQ, René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power (Toronto: 1989); Kenneth McRoberts, Quebec. Social Change and Political Crisis, third edition (Toronto: 1988); and Herbert Quinn, "Political Resurrection in Quebec: The re-election of Robert Bourassa as Liberal Leader, " in Dalhousie Review (Spring 1984). Maclean's Magazine (Sept. 28, 1992) has a strong rebuttal of Quebec's "distinct society" claim written by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.