Jacques Parizeau, former Quebec premier, dead at 84

Jacques Parizeau, the man who nearly led Quebec to sovereignty in 1995, died Monday night. He was 84.

Former head of Parti Québécois spent years battling unidentified illness

Jacques Parizeau dies

8 years ago
Duration 3:23
Former Quebec premier was leader of Parti Québécois, spent years battling unidentified illness

Jacques Parizeau, the man who nearly led Quebec to sovereignty in 1995, has died.

He was 84.

The death was announced on social media by Lisette Lapointe, his wife and former Parti Québécois politician. Lapointe said Parizeau died around 8 p.m. Monday night, surrounded by loved ones. Lapointe also confirmed the death to CBC/Radio-Canada.

"Immense grief tonight," Lapointe said on Facebook. "The man of my life has gone....He was surrounded by love. After a titanic fight, hospitalized for five months, facing challenges one after the other with extraordinary courage and determination, he passed away...We are devastated.

"We love him and will love him forever."

Considered one of the province's most respected economists, Parizeau was best known as the Parti Québécois premier during the sovereignty referendum of 1995, decided by a razor-thin margin.

His supporters hope Parizeau's legacy will overshadow his infamous speech blaming the referendum's outcome on "money and the ethnic vote."

Early life

Born in Montreal on Aug. 9, 1930, Parizeau attended the city's École des Hautes Études Commerciales and the Paris Law Faculty. He obtained a PhD at the London School of Economics.

Jacques Parizeau served in the Parti Québécois government of René Lévesque as finance minister in 1976. (Radio-Canada)
His bourgeois background, penchant for three-piece suits and proper style of speaking all contributed to his nickname, "Monsieur."

As a civil servant, Parizeau was instrumental in the creation of Quebec's pension plan and the nationalization of hydroelectricity. Both are considered turning points in Quebec's Quiet Revolution.

Before becoming a staunch Quebec sovereigntist, Parizeau famously had an epiphany about the province's relationship with Canada during a train ride to a seminar in Banff, Alta.

"I started to write my paper, I hadn't had time to write it," he told CBC News. "It started as a federalist paper and the conclusion was clearly sovereigntist."

Sovereigntist movement

Parizeau joined René Lévesque's upstart Parti Québécois and was first elected to the National Assembly in 1976. Parizeau served in several cabinet positions including finance minister and treasury board president.

Parizeau: A cartoonist's dream leader

8 years ago
Duration 6:33
CBC interview with Terry Mosher, aka Aislin, political cartoonist with the Montreal Gazette

In 1980, Lévesque's PQ government sent Quebecers to the polls in the province's first referendum on sovereignty. Nearly 60 per cent of respondents voted No.

Four years later, after Lévesque put sovereignty on the backburner, Parizeau left cabinet and quit as a member of the National Assembly.

He returned to lead the PQ himself and the party swept to power in 1994. Parizeau promised to hold a second referendum on sovereignty.

On Oct. 30, 1995, Quebecers went to the polls once again. With Parizeau and Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard at the helm, the Yes side received support from 49.6 per cent of voters.

The result was much closer than in 1980, but the PQ government still failed to secure a majority of votes in favour of sovereignty.

'Money and the ethnic vote'

In a speech to supporters the night of the referendum, Parizeau blamed the Yes side's loss on "money and the ethnic vote." 

Accused of racism, the phrase would haunt Parizeau for years.

Francine Pelletier, who directed the documentary Public Enemy #1 (Monsieur in French), says Parizeau's comments came out of anger over the outcome of the referendum.

"He [was] anything but a racist and a xenophobe," Pelletier said. "What came out of his mouth made him sound something like the remnants of [Quebec's dark ages], but he [was] so much better than that."

Former PQ premier Bernard Landry says the years-old backlash was like a "sentence" that Parizeau did not deserve.

"What he did in his life was so positive that I hope and I think that over the years, Parizeau will stay 'Monsieur.'"

Long-lasting influence

Two decades after his official departure from politics, his influence on the Quebec sovereignty movement remained palpable.

In 2013, his disapproval of the PQ's proposed charter of values came as a major blow to the Pauline Marois government. The plan would have banned overt religious symbols from Quebec public-sector jobs.

"Federalism is turning into true defenders of minorities in Quebec," he told Radio-Canada in 2013. "We can't put ourselves in a situation like that."

In an hour-long interview in February 2015, Parizeau said it would be up to the next generation to decide about Quebec sovereignty.

"It's clear that what my generation had to say has been said."

Thomas Daigle with files from Tracey Lindeman


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