In June 2008, Québec Premier Jean Charest declared that all premiers would keep the title of "premier ministre /premier" beyond the tenure in office. This was a page right out of U.S political conventions where a president, a senator, a representative and a governor keep their titles for life. A welcome move as it honors, irrespective of political affiliation, the commitment and the service of those who served.
Since 1970, I have had the honor of knowing every Québec premier of all political stripes. I have actually served three of them (Robert Bourassa, Daniel Johnson and Jean Charest) in different capacities. It is fair to say that Québec has been well served by dedicated individuals engaged in advancing the interests of their fellow citizens. Today is a brief recall about one whose legacy, among others, is worth remembering: Robert Bourassa (1933-1996).
Robert Bourassa became Québec’s youngest elected premier in April 1970. He served initially for six years (1970-76) and made a spectacular political comeback getting reelected in 1985, and served until his retirement from politics in 1994. Fifteen years ago on October 2, 1996, Premier Bourassa passed away. It is important that we take time to remember how an individual can make a difference.
Throughout his political career, Robert Bourassa always believed that the true strength and promise of Québec rested with its economic potential and growth. From the onset, he worked tirelessly in promoting Québec’s economic advantages and leverage them in transforming Québec into a modern, innovative and creative society.
By the time he left office, Québec had become a leader in renewable energy, biotechnology and aerospace and had led the way promoting free trade with both the U.S. and Mexico. Successive premiers have recognized this contribution and built on this legacy.
In 1970, he launched the most ambitious energy project in Québec history – the development of the James Bay Project. A recent visit with some American friends to the Robert Bourassa Complex provided concrete evidence of Québec’s enormous renewable energy potential. In the 1970’s, Bourassa argued for, and won the debate for hydroelectric development over the proponents of nuclear energy development. Québec society, which has North America’s lowest carbon footprint as our electricity is generated by over 95% from renewable sources, has never looked back.
Other important defining achievements from the Bourassa years include universal healthcare, making French the official language of Québec while ensuring minority rights for its English-speaking minority, establishing Québec’s first environment ministry, adopting a Bill of Rights Charter, negotiating a quasi-constitutional agreement with the Québec Cree nation to develop the James Bay Project, establishing the Council on the Status of Women and harmonizing both the federal and the provincial tax system to make Québec more competitive internationally.
Despite this impressive list of accomplishments, Robert Bourassa’s legacy is not just related to specific policies and decisions. It also includes his approach to politics and the heat of political debate. He was a visionary and inspired a generation of followers who became engaged in defending and promoting Québec’s interests. However, he never personalized divergences with his political opponents. His civility and his respect for the achievements of previous governments as a basis to build from has garnered him much respect and affection beyond the partisan divide. He could disagree without being disagreeable. And finally, his primary purpose for engaging in political life was to build for future generations a society where economic development and prosperity would contribute to advancing social justice for all citizens.
He was a believer in federalism but his cherished goal to bring constitutional reform was never achieved but not from a lack of trying. Still, over his tenure, he defended Québec‘s place in the Canadian federation and in so doing, was able to make some advances which kept Québec as an influential partner within the Canadian federation in economic, fiscal and immigration matters.
It was hard to define him ideologically as he was a pragmatist. It is fair to say that he believed in an activist government, and saw government as an instrument to fight inequality within society. Above all, he wanted to make Quebecers progress in all facets of their development as a people. In the final analysis, this is a legacy worth remembering, and building on.