This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 22, 1999
Camille Laurin once likened Bill 101, Quebec's landmark French language charter that he ushered into law, to shock therapy. It was a fitting analogy for Laurin, 76, a psychiatrist-turned-politician who died of cancer last week in Montreal. Adopted by René Lévesque's Parti Québécois government in 1977, the sweeping law, as critics and supporters agree, transformed Quebec society.
Its restrictions on English turned Laurin into a reviled figure among anglophones, who dubbed him "Dr. No." Outwardly unflappable, Laurin claimed to take the attacks in stride. "I never even held it against them when they called me Goebbels," he told a reporter for Montreal's The Gazette in 1991, referring to the Nazi propagandist. "I was the one who brought the plague - so they held their nose and closed their eyes so it would go away." But PQ MNA David Payne told Maclean's it bothered Laurin that anglophones couldn't understand the reasons for the law. "He rationalized that he understood it," says Payne of Anglo antipathy. "But it did hurt him."
As evidenced by Premier Lucien Bouchard's decision last week to hold a state funeral for him, Laurin achieved icon status among francophones for his linguistic shock therapy. The law is one of the most important - and contested - pieces of legislation in the province's history. It forced immigrants to attend French schools, obliged businesses to operate in French and banned bilingual signs. When it was introduced, Laurin claimed the law "would be the reconquest by the French-speaking majority of Quebec." He also reverted to terms from his psychiatric training, and agreed with a colleague who said that the language law provided "a cure in intensive care" for Quebecers. Ironically, some analysts argue that the confidence it gave francophones helped diminish enthusiasm for Laurin's cherished goal of a sovereign Quebec.
A native of a village northeast of Montreal, Laurin abandoned federalism in the early 1960s. At the time, his friends included Pierre Trudeau and Marc Lalonde. Even after the split over Quebec's future, Laurin and Trudeau retained some affection for each other. After a joint Lévesque-Trudeau news conference in Quebec City in 1977, Laurin approached Trudeau and tapped him on the shoulder. Trudeau was startled, but beamed, and they chatted. Minutes later, Laurin, talking to reporters, likened Quebec to an "occupied country," and Trudeau's government to "the occupying force."
Laurin ran for the PQ in its first campaign in 1970, and was one of seven members elected. After the PQ's stunning election victory in 1976, Lévesque appointed Laurin minister for cultural development. Although he never again held such an influential position, Laurin made an indelible mark. "For sovereigntists of my generation, Dr. Laurin was a sort of spiritual father," said Louise Beaudoin, now the PQ minister responsible for the Charter of the French Language. In fact, he quit the PQ in 1985, disappointed by a decision to softpedal sovereignty in the next election, which the Liberals won.
While Laurin's charter found favour among francophones, more than 200,000 anglophones left the province in the decade after its introduction. Critics contend Laurin created unnecessary friction by being inflexible. "I think he went further than he had to," says John Ciaccia, a long-serving Liberal MNA who retired in November. "He gave the impression that he didn't seem to accept the presence of minorities and the English-speaking community." Montreal lawyer Eric Maldoff dealt with Laurin in the late 1970s in his role as an English-rights activist. When it came to concerns about Bill 101, Maldoff says, "there was no reasoning, there was no discussing it with him. Fact was irrelevant."
The courts weighed in several times on Bill 101, striking down certain aspects of the law. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1988 that the French-only sign law violated freedom of expression. Eventually, the Liberal government passed Bill 86, which allows for bilingual signs if French is predominant.
Colleagues described Laurin, a practising Catholic, as kind. He chain-smoked and was not always imperturbable. In 1973, when the PQ won six seats - one less than in 1970 - Laurin put his head on Lévesque's shoulder and wept.
Payne, who shared an office with Laurin, recalls that they first met in 1968 in Italy and at once began to debate about English poetry and European politics. "He was the most well-read person I've ever met," says Payne. Author-journalist Graham Fraser wrote in his 1984 book P.Q.: René Lévesque & the Parti Québécois in Power that Laurin "could talk about Palmerston, Disraeli and Wilson with the same apparent ease as he could discuss Freud, opera, Beethoven or Vatican II."
Laurin returned to politics under then-PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau in the early 1990s, and joked that anglophones should "keep your children indoors." He won a seat in 1994, and planned to run again in last fall's election. But by then, he had fallen ill. Laurin evoked the same disparate reactions that marked the overall tone of the language debate. But to use a favourite word of his, the always-courteous Laurin likely considered that "normal."
Maclean's March 22, 1999