Montreal

Neil Cameron, history teacher and former Equality Party MNA, dies at 81

Cameron, who taught at John Abbott College for 30 years, was one of four candidates in the upstart anglophone rights Equality Party to stun Quebec by winning seats in the 1989 election. The erudite writer and history teacher is remembered as someone "who gave a lot to his community."

Cameron was 1 of 4 Anglo rights candidates who stunned Quebec in 1989, taking key Liberal strongholds

Neil Cameron, who was MNA for Jacques Cartier from 1989 to 1994, was one of four Equality Party candidates elected to English-majority Montreal ridings in a protest vote against then-premier Robert Bourassa's use of the notwithstanding clause. (CBC)

Neil Cameron, who served as MNA for the riding of Jacques Cartier from 1989 to 1994, died Wednesday at the age of 81.

Cameron was one of four candidates for the upstart anglophone-rights Equality Party which stunned Quebec's political pundits in the Sept. 25, 1989 election by winning seats in ridings that had been Liberal strongholds.

Cameron, who taught history at John Abbott College for 30 years, was born in Weyburn, Sask., but came to Montreal in 1966 to study history — first at Sir George Williams University and later at McGill. He also became an op-ed columnist for community newspapers as well as the Montreal Daily News, the Ottawa Citizen and the Montreal Gazette. 

Cameron was a founding member of the Equality Party, which sought equal standing for English and French in the province. 

The party was formed hastily in 1989, in reaction to then-premier Robert Bourassa's decision to use the notwithstanding clause in the Canadian Constitution to override a Supreme Court ruling that would have allowed the use of languages other than French on commercial signs. 

In that fall's election, the party ran candidates only in provincial ridings with a large percentage of anglophones. It was not expected to take any seats, but Cameron, along with Gordon Atkinson, Richard Holden and party leader Robert Libman, won handily in their respective ridings, all in Montreal: Jacques-Cartier, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Westmount-Saint-Georges and D'Arcy-McGee.

Neil Cameron, left, is seen here leaving the Quebec National Assembly with fellow Equality Party members Robert Libman, second from left, Richard Holden and Gordon Atkinson on Oct. 13, 1989, shortly after their surprise election in Quebec general election on Sept. 25. (The Canadian Press/Clement Allard)

Short-lived victory

The party did not last long as a cohesive force for Anglo rights, however. Holden was soon expelled for lack of party discipline and later crossed the floor to join the sovereignist Parti Québécois — a shock to his Westmount constituents.

By 1994, Cameron was the only one of the four Equality Party members still in the legislature. He was defeated in that fall's election by the Liberal's Geoffrey Kelley, who held the seat until his retirement from politics in 2018.

In a Facebook post Thursday, Greg Kelley, Geoffrey Kelley's son and his successor in the Jacques-Cartier riding, spoke warmly of Cameron's contribution to the National Assembly and to his community.

"He was somebody who obviously had a good rapport with lots of people," Kelley told CBC News. "Most importantly, he was a person who who gave a lot to his community."

"It's not just who we represent as a party that defines us, but really, what we do in life that matters the most."

Equality Party's 'peacemaker'

Libman, who went on to serve as mayor in Côte Saint-Luc and then as borough mayor in the merged suburb from 1998 until 2005, described his old political colleague as "an interesting character" and the "peacemaker" who provided the Equality Party's tiny caucus with its intellectual underpinning."

"He always kept us on the straight and narrow, and he always made sure that we didn't go off in the wrong direction on a lot of political issues," said Libman. "He was a very sobering influence and a very stabilizing force." 

Libman called Cameron "a brilliant intellectual" who could make speeches on any subject.

"You used to love putting him up there and have him speak on and on and on, on anything from the Spanish Inquisition to Quebec history, to cultural issues, to genocide, to human rights."

"He always had an anecdote," said Libman. "It was wonderful learning from him all those years."

Libman said he and Cameron got together recently, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Equality Party's 1989 electoral success and reminisce about their time in the political limelight.

"It was wonderful to be together and joke around about those heady times back then, which were very intense," said Libman. "The language debate was raging. There was constitutional uncertainty, and we were right in the middle of it, right in the heart of the National Assembly."

He said Cameron was already ailing by then. He recalled his friend and political ally had been a smoker and a drinker  — "not the healthiest sort." 

"The fact that he lived into his 80s is a testament to his will and his enthusiasm for life."

With files from Brennan Neil and Peter Johnson

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