OTTAWA - Laurier LaPierre, former Liberal senator and co-host of the iconic CBC program "This Hour has Seven Days," has died. He was 83.
Federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae confirmed LaPierre's sudden passing on Monday afternoon, describing his former colleague as an accomplished scholar and passionate advocate for key Canadian issues.
"From academia and journalism, to his tireless advocacy for bilingualism, the arts and gay rights, Laurier was an exceptional Canadian who touched the lives of many," Rae said in a statement.
LaPierre's former Senate colleague and friend Jim Munson echoed Rae's sentiments, calling his friend an extraordinary person with the gift of adding zest to any situation.
The feisty passion that made him a household name during his career with the CBC was still in evidence as recently as two weeks ago when he attended local political events in Ottawa, Munson said, adding LaPierre's penchant for laughter and mischief was as much a part of his personality as his desire to fight for the underdog.
"I loved his spontaneity. I loved his passion. We're going to miss a person like Laurier LaPierre. I know that history will treat him kindly."
Born in 1929 in Lac Mégantic, Que., LaPierre first distinguished himself as an academic. He obtained his PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 1962, two years before rising to national prominence with "This Hour has Seven Days."
LaPierre co-hosted the 60-minute current affairs program alongside Patrick Watson, earning a reputation as a fearless journalist with a knack for cutting to the emotional core of an issue.
That talent got him into trouble in 1966, according to the CBC. He famously blinked back tears during an interview with the mother of Stephen Truscott, who at 14 had been sentenced to death on what later turned out to be a wrongful murder conviction. LaPierre was harshly criticized in the media, and CBC president Alphonse Ouimet called his reaction "unprofessional."
LaPierre's contract was not renewed, and the show went off the air that May.
LaPierre made sporadic returns to television in the ensuing years, but maintained his career as an academic with faculty stints at the University of Western Ontario, Loyola College and McGill University.
His academic career was characterized by strong advocacy for bilingualism in Canada, according to former CBC colleague and fellow McGill alumnus Mark Starowicz.
Many of his writings challenged the notion of Canada's two solitudes at a time when the divide between French and English was at its most contentious, Starowicz said.
"He had the guts to attack both fortresses," Starowicz said. "He'd talk to the English in Montreal and the English at McGill saying, 'You've got to stop behaving like English outposts, you too are Quebecers.'"
"And he'd say to a lot of Quebec French nationalists, 'You've got to stop behaving provincially and realize you're citizens of Canada.' Both statements were very unpopular at the time, and it took courage to do that."
He also made a brief foray into politics in 1968, when he ran as a federal NDP candidate in the Quebec riding of Lachine. He was defeated in that election and did not make a political splash until Jean Chretien appointed him to the Senate in 2001.
During his three-year term, Munson said LaPierre's characteristic zeal led him to speak out passionately on behalf of the country's aboriginal population.
"He did have a soft spot for what we as a society have done and continue to do to the First Nations people of this country. He would speak in very passionate tones about respect and understanding of the status of First Nations people," Munson said.
Gay rights were also dear to LaPierre, who came out himself at a public rally in the 1980s, Munson said.
He made headlines for his vocal support of hate crime bill C-250 in 2004 and worked as an activist for Egale, a national lobby group for gay and lesbian rights.
LaPierre is survived by his longtime partner Harvey Slack.