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Former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Benoît Pelletier dies at 64

MONTREAL — Former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister and well-known constitutional expert Benoît Pelletier has died in Mexico at age 64, his family announced Monday.
Former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Benoît Pelletier has died in Mexico at age 64. Pelletier responds to opposition questions in this Thursday, Oct. 25, 2007, file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL — Former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister and well-known constitutional expert Benoît Pelletier has died in Mexico at age 64, his family announced Monday. 

In a statement, his wife and four children described him as "a caring husband, a devoted, funny, generous and attentive father and a great lover of Quebec and the French language." 

Pelletier served as a cabinet minister in former premier Jean Charest's government, where he held numerous portfolios between 2003 and 2008, including intergovernmental affairs, Indigenous affairs, Canadian francophonie, reform of democratic institutions and access to information. 

"He dedicated his live to serving Quebec and Canada with devotion, force and passion," his family wrote. "His brilliant career as a lawyer, politician, University of Ottawa professor and jurist all bear witness to it."

Born in 1960, Pelletier was a well-known University of Ottawa law professor when he made the leap into provincial politics in 1998 by winning a seat in the western Quebec Chapleau riding for Charest's Liberals. He presided over the Liberal party's special committee on the province's political and constitutional future, and was considered the father of the Charest Liberals' policy on Quebec's place in Canada.

When the party came to power in 2003, Pelletier was named Canadian intergovernmental affairs minister, a portfolio he would hold, along with others, until he left politics in 2008. 

Although a federalist, Pelletier was considered a Quebec nationalist who advocated for asymmetric federalism — a framework that allows Quebec to have specific agreements and arrangements with Ottawa — and fought to limit the federal government's spending powers. 

In 2006, he helped finalize an agreement with the federal government of Stephen Harper to allow Quebec to name a permanent representative to Canada's delegation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. 

He was also an advocate for a Quebec constitution — an idea he admitted would anger some federalists.

In a lengthy statement, Charest described Pelletier as a "colleague, adviser and a friend" who leaves a strong intellectual and political legacy. 

"Through his legal thinking and political engagement, Benoît Pelletier allowed Quebec to make significant gains within the Canadian federation and the world," Charest wrote. "He represents a formidable source of inspiration for anyone hoping to advance the interests of the Quebec nation in Canada and internationally."

Pelletier returned to law and teaching after his political career, and was named in 2015 to the federal government's committee to study medical aid in dying. He was a member of the Order of Canada, an officer of the Order of Quebec, and the recipient of several honours and prizes for his long career in politics, teaching and law. 

His family did not release his cause of death, but noted he had survived a severe bout of COVID-19 in 2021 that "struck him without mercy."

Politicians from all sides of the political aisle paid tribute to Pelletier on Monday, including Premier François Legault, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and interim Quebec Liberal Party Leader Marc Tanguay.

"Erudite, great orator and always ready to help, he will remain a model for us all," Tanguay wrote. "His legacy will live on."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2024. 

Mario Gilbert, The Canadian Press

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