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Saturday December 22, 2012

Firebrand populist, political opportunist was an emblem of rural Catholic Quebec

Spellbinding, if unvarnished, soap-box orator who founded provincial wing of Social Credit was called the joker of provincial politics

Special to The Globe and Mail

MONTREAL -- It was hard to take him seriously.

A small-town used-car salesman who went into politics, Camil Samson had a toothy smile, a pronounced speech impediment ( "s" always came out "sh") and a tendency to get carried away.

One descent into overheated rhetoric led him to declare: "Ladies and gentlemen, the present government has taken us to the edge of the abyss.

"Elect me - and I will take you a step forward!"

Considered a throwback from another era, he was dismissed as an "amusing demagogue," or as the joker of Quebec politics. But then in 1970 he founded a provincial wing of the Social Credit Party, and confounded the pundits by winning 12 seats in a general election held a month later.

A spellbinding, if unvarnished soap-box orator, Samson died in Quebec City on Tuesday, three weeks shy of his 78th birthday. Perhaps best described as a fiscally confused conservative who championed so-called family values, he railed against big banks and high interest rates, denounced abortion, the pill and sex education.

He also found Communists lurking in the labour unions, and endorsed Hitler's economic policies. The Parti Québécois, he once charged, had "taken God out of the schools and replaced him with drugs and sex."

Veteran political pundit Don Macpherson of the Montreal Gazette called him the Jerry Lewis of Quebec politics. Fellow journalist Robert Mckenzie wrote that he had a "mouth like a piano" and a silly smile that made him look like Fernandel, the famously toothy comic French actor.

Samson was a political opportunist. His first foray into the public arena was as a federal Social Credit candidate in a riding in northeastern Ontario in 1963. Just three years later, he ran provincially for the Ralliement National, a fledgling Quebec separatist party. Yet he ended his days as a Liberal, campaigning along the backroads with Jean Chrétien for the No side in the 1980 referendum on Quebec sovereignty and tried to save his seat in the legislature by becoming a provincial Liberal.

The eldest of four children, he was born (as Camille) in Shawinigan, Que., on Jan. 3, 1935, a year ahead of Chrétien, the town's most famous native son. His father worked in a paper mill, and Samson attended elementary school with the future prime minister's wife, Aline.

He defined himself as the defender of the little guy, much like Chrétien, who suggests in his memoirs that, while Samson "may have caused the intellectuals and snobs to look down on him, it made him a winner with his rural constituents. He was a folksy type, a dynamic orator with a terrific sense of humour."

Samson's family left Shawinigan for Clericy, a small town near Rouyn-Noranda. At 15, he went to work for the Ontario Northern Railway, where he learned English. He returned to open a restaurant in Clericy, then sold automobiles, conducted a marching band, founded an amateur theatre group, which opened with a French version of The Boy Friend in Rouyn-Noranda, and was elected president of the local Chamber of Commerce.

As Quebec voters, who had embraced John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives in 1958 became increasingly disenchanted with his government, many of them turned to Social Credit, which was jointly led by Robert Thomson in English Canada, and by Réal Caouette in Quebec.

From the moment Samson heard Caouette address a rally in Rouyn-Noranda, he became a supporter. "What [Caouette] had to say was logical, uncomplicated, and it made sense." He became a party organizer, and ran on the Social Credit ticket in Témiscamingue. He lost.

As Caouette's sidekick, he brought the Social Credit movement to provincial politics and in 1970 founded the Ralliement des Créditistes, which came out of nowhere as "the middle way between two extremes," to win 11 per cent of the vote and 12 seats in the first election won by Robert Bourassa as Liberal leader.

As an MLA Samson proved to be an effective, colourful debater. In speeches, he presciently and repeatedly warned that both the Liberals and later the Parti Québécois governments were wasting taxpayer money on social programs that would leave Quebeckers indebted for generations.

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