Claude Ryan (Obituary)

Ryan, Claude (Obituary)

THE PASSING of Claude RYAN, the respected Quebec editorialist and politician who died of cancer in Montreal last week, triggered a torrent of fond testimonials from people who had known him throughout his many careers: as a reformist Catholic militant, publisher, politician, and éminence grise of successive Quebec governments. But you had to know him well to love the man - as a public figure, Ryan was more respected than popular. And his influence was far greater than his readership - more people routinely attended a Canadiens hockey game than read his former newspaper, Le Devoir, every day.

I never worked for him, but I may just as well have. When I was a cub reporter at La Presse, I pictured Ryan as my secret bogeyman editor. He didn't suffer fools, had read all the tedious reports, knew all the figures. The simple thought of this fearsome reader, furry brows, beaky nose, thin lips, pointing a bony finger at a cut corner or a botched phrase, was enough to straighten me out. Those who did work for him called him le Bonhomme - the Fogey. Fearfully respectful, they were.

I wrote a profile of him when he was contemplating a move into politics in the late seventies. He told me how he had picked and courted his wife - a totally pragmatic and unromantic exercise, but so much in character. The piece became ammunition for his foes during his 1978 campaign for the provincial Liberal leadership, and Ryan could hold a grudge. Ten years later, when I was covering Quebec politics for the Globe and Mail, Ryan called me a gossip journalist in front of a room full of people. Our relationship resumed after that. Irish blood flowed in his veins: don't get mad, get even.

Notoriously stern and frugal, Ryan was no party animal, and he hosted the most boring victory party I ever covered, on referendum night in May 1980. On that evening, though, Pierre Trudeau made his famous promise of "change." When change came, with the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, Ryan rallied his Liberal Opposition members to vote with the Parti Québécois government to unanimously oppose it. Ryan had his own blueprint for the future of Canada - contained in his aptly titled Beige Paper of 1979 - but Trudeau had not followed it. Ryan's opposition to Trudeau probably cost him his job as provincial Liberal leader, but, then again, he had gotten even.

Although he was generous, he had a mean streak. He once told me, "René Lévesque reads many magazines - I read books." As Liberal leader, he shunned former premier Robert Bourassa, saying he wanted no mother-in-law in the bedroom. Bourassa, who had stepped down in 1976 following his loss to the PQ, was wiser in politics than Ryan, and he came back to reconquer his party and then power in 1985. He kept Ryan in his cabinet, giving him the sticky, no-win files: municipal affairs, language laws. Ryan took the flak like a man.

Ryan's passing, at 79, forces us to pause and contemplate how fast the world has changed. On the campaign trail in the '80s, he was already a dinosaur. He did not believe in opinion polls, did not care about photo ops and sound bites, and insisted on making important speeches in remote locations, long past media deadlines. But he was always his own man, a freethinker, an independent spirit, an uncompromising intellectual. A man even his critics would turn to in times of crisis, in quest of a level-headed adviser or a beacon of reason. Among the last of a dying breed.

Maclean's February 23, 2004