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Former minister Jean Garon nurtured sovereignty movement’s roots

Jean Garon served as agriculture minister in Réné Lévesque’s government, and education minister under Jacques Parizeau.

Yan Doublet/Le Soleil

Rotund, gap-toothed and raspy-voiced, Jean Garon is remembered by many Quebeckers as a colourful Parti Québécois agriculture minister, but he was also one of the sovereignty movement's first evangelists, planting roots in outlying regions that would help the PQ for decades afterward.

While a student, Mr. Garon canvassed the small towns of eastern Quebec, searching for supporters, promoting assemblies with a loudspeaker tied to the roof of his car and appearing on local television.

Clinching those rural ridings would be crucial in the five elections that the PQ later won.

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"He anchored the PQ in the hinterland. It was a lasting trend in Quebec politics," said University of Montreal political scientist Denis Monière, who was also an activist in the early days of the movement.

Mr. Garon, whose funeral took place on Saturday, was 76 when he died of a heart attack on July 1 in Lévis, a Quebec City suburb.

Because he affected a populist, folksy style, Mr. Garon was portrayed by humorists as an unpolished bumpkin.

In reality, he was a well-travelled law professor who had married an American woman he met while sightseeing in Paris.

His long-time aide Simon Bégin said the key to Mr. Garon's success was that he was an academic and the son of a businessman, but he came from a small village. "He was at ease in small towns. He knew how they worked."

He was born May 6, 1938, in Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse, downriver from Quebec City. His father, a hotel owner, was also the local mayor, so young Jean grew up familiar with the world of politics.

In the years after the Second World War, his father would read the papers and remark, "Look, another small African country became independent. How come we haven't managed to do that too?"

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At 17, he was at a Jesuit college when CN Rail announced that its new hotel in Montreal would be named after Queen Elizabeth.

Mr. Garon joined 250,000 other Quebeckers who signed a petition asking in vain for CN to rename the hotel after Montreal's founder, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve.

"If we couldn't even get a hotel name changed … then something was wrong with the system," Mr. Garon recalled.

By the time he was a student at Laval University, the first major sovereigntist party was founded: the Rassemblement pour l'indépendance nationale.

He started an RIN chapter at Laval in 1961 and became the party's organizer for eastern Quebec.

"Each weekend, with a friend or two, he would drive to a village in Charlevoix or Rimouski or Rivière-du-Loup. … They'd meet the village priest to rent the parish hall. … He had a sound system on the roof of his car and he would drive around the village to announce the assembly, then in the evening he'd give a speech and sign up people," Mr. Bégin said.

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As Mr. Garon recalled in a 2009 interview for a legislature history project, "I'd go to the general store, grab a Pepsi, chat with the guys, chat about politics, about the Socreds. After chatting a while, I'd ask if there were independentists around. 'Oh yeah, the damn fool in the farm lot there' – so I'd leave the store and go see 'the fool in the farm lot.'"

"I'd ask, 'Do you want to sign up with us as a member?' and then, afterward, 'Do you know others who would want to join?'"

He also emulated the Socred populist MP Réal Caouette, who pioneered the use of paid broadcasts on regional television. Mr. Garon would tape several programs in a row, changing his jacket and necktie between segments so they could be aired on different weeks.

The RIN was a Montreal-centric party, with secular, progressive views that didn't mesh with Mr. Garon's more traditional sensibilities. Furthermore, he didn't get along with the RIN's fiery, provocative leader, Pierre Bourgault.

In 1964, Mr. Garon joined a splinter party, the Regroupement national, which two years later merged with provincial Socred members to become the Ralliement national, which was headed by former Socred MP Gilles Grégoire.

The ruling provincial Liberals were also in turmoil, with star cabinet minister René Lévesque unhappy with his party's constitutional stance.

Mr. Garon often ran into Mr. Lévesque at the Aquarium, a Quebec City bar, and was among those who urged him to leave the Liberals and unite the nationalist factions behind him. "The only person who could achieve that is you," Mr. Garon told him, according to Mr. Bégin.

He got his wish within two years. Mr. Lévesque left the Liberals in 1967 and founded a short-lived group, the Mouvement souveraineté-association. By the following autumn, Mr. Lévesque's MSA and the Ralliement of Mr. Grégoire and Mr. Garon had joined to become the PQ.

Prof. Monière said Mr. Lévesque's MSA was mostly based in Montreal, so the merger with the Ralliement opened the door to the rest of the province.

"That alliance enabled the PQ to become a national party. That's the great contribution of the Ralliement national, of Garon and Grégoire," Prof. Monière said.

Aside from an unsuccessful run for the PQ in the 1973 election, Mr. Garon mostly stayed away from politics in the ensuing years. He finished his law degree then taught economics and fiscal law.

He came back in 1976 for the PQ's breakthrough victory. In his first cabinet, Mr. Lévesque picked him for the agriculture portfolio. He tried to beg off, but the premier said he needed a lawyer because the agricultural laws were in disarray.

Driving home, Mr. Garon heard his Liberal predecessor, Kevin Drummond, talk on radio about the portfolio's main issues. He told his wife that he only grasped one-tenth of Mr. Drummond's remarks.

His first months in the job were rough and news reports mentioned him as one of the ministers struggling in their new jobs.

In the legislature, the opposition tried to trip him, but his quick wit helped. During parliamentary debate, one Liberal challenged Mr. Garon to reveal if he knew how many toes a pig had on each foot. Mr. Garon replied that his opponent could get the answer by removing his shoes and counting his toes.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Garon prepared a key legislation he introduced in the fall of 1978, Bill 90.

Previous ministers had tried without success to pass a law to limit expanding suburbs from encroaching into farmland.

Mr. Garon wrangled civil servants, caucus members and the farm lobby to get the legislation through, despite opposition from land speculators and farmers, who wanted to be free to resell their property.

Citing the parable of the talents from the Gospel of Matthew, he told the legislature that "to pave over your farmland and build houses over it, is to waste and destroy your talents."

By now, his grasp of his files was such that he would remain in the agriculture portfolio until the end of the PQ mandate and finished third among the six candidates in the leadership race to replace Mr. Lévesque in 1985.

When the PQ returned to power in 1994, then-premier Jacques Parizeau appointed him to be education minister. He lasted only 16 months. After Mr. Parizeau stepped down following the 1995 referendum defeat, the new leader, Lucien Bouchard, didn't keep Mr. Garon in cabinet.

In his autobiography, Pour tout vous dire, Mr. Garon questioned Mr. Bouchard's commitment to sovereignty, portraying him as a conservative man who didn't truly belong in the PQ.

Mr. Garon was mayor of Lévis from 1998 to 2005. In 2007, he flirted with Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec party but said it was in an unfruitful attempt to woo Mr. Dumont into the sovereigntist camp.

In recent years, Mr. Garon could see that the movement he nurtured decades ago was again splintered in smaller parties.

In a typically blunt-talking interview with Le Soleil last year, he said he was sad Quebec didn't achieve independence, which he blamed on voters being averse to change.

"The people of Quebec are a fearful people. Let's not beat around the bush. We're cowards. … We give the impression we're afraid of our shadows," he said.

"I don't hate the English. Half my family is of Irish, German ancestry. My wife is American. The English-Canadians defend their interests. We just have to defend ours."

Mr. Garon leaves his wife, Judith Schlimgen, and three daughters, Hélène, Marie-Ève and Julie.

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More


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