Paul Gérin-Lajoie was an architect of Quebec’s education system

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The great shakeup that would modernize Quebec’s education system began in a guest room of the Château Frontenac on the evening of June 30, 1960.

His Liberals freshly elected to government on a reformist agenda, premier Jean Lesage held a post-electoral meeting at the landmark Quebec City hotel, then had a private meeting with one of his new caucus members, Paul Gérin-Lajoie.

Mr. Lesage had previously picked Mr. Gérin-Lajoie as his attorney-general, but now, the new premier had changed his mind and wanted him instead to be minister of youth.

Mr. Gérin-Lajoie, a strong-willed, ambitious lawyer who two years before had competed against Mr. Lesage for party leadership, said he would only take the youth portfolio if it also included responsibility for education.

Quebec had not had an education ministry in 85 years and Mr. Gérin-Lajoie wanted to change that.

The premier said he would check the next morning with his legal adviser, Louis-Philippe Pigeon, to find out if legislation needed to be tabled to expand Mr. Gérin-Lajoie’s portfolio to include education.

However, Mr. Gérin-Lajoie insisted that Mr. Lesage phone Mr. Pigeon right away.

Reached at home, Mr. Pigeon confirmed a ministerial decree would be enough to get it done.

“You’ve won,” Mr. Lesage told Mr. Gérin-Lajoie.

Mr. Gérin-Lajoie, the first education minister in modern Quebec history, died at home on June 25 at the age of 98. He will be given a national funeral in Montreal on Thursday.

One of the key figures of the Quiet Revolution, he was a member of Mr. Lesage’s Équipe du tonnerre (in English, Thunder Team), the band of politicians including René Lévesque and Georges-Émile Lapalme who transformed Quebec into a modern state during the 1960s.

Reforming Quebec’s backward school system was one of the greatest accomplishments of the time, Mr. Lévesque would later say. “If there was a revolution, that’s where it really happened,” he wrote in his 1986 memoirs, Attendez que je me rappelle.

In the six years that followed his meeting with Mr. Lesage at the Château Frontenac, Mr. Gérin-Lajoie initiated many of the features now taken for granted in Quebec education: free textbooks and education for all children until the age of 16, regional school boards, curriculum priorities set out by the state rather than the church, comprehensive high schools rather than classical colleges.

“There’s going to be more done in the next five years than I would have thought possible in 50,” a civil servant told The Globe and Mail in 1964, describing the enthusiasm Mr. Gérin-Lajoie had injected into the Education Department.

Mr. Gérin-Lajoie was a constitutional law specialist. He articulated what became known as the Gérin-Lajoie doctrine, justifying forays by the Quebec government in some areas of foreign affairs. He was also an early advocate for granting a special status to Quebec to protect its language and culture.

Born in Montreal on Feb. 23, 1920, he was the eldest of the six children of Henri Gérin-Lajoie and the former Pauline Dorion.

He grew up in a high-achieving family. His father and paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were lawyers. Other ancestors included trailblazing feminist Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie, children’s hospital founder Justine Lacoste-Beaubien and Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, author of the anthemic folk song Un Canadien errant.

Young Paul studied and edited the student paper at the elite Jesuit school Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, where he was a year ahead of the future prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

In 1938, he was selected as a Rhodes Scholar but couldn’t go study at Oxford University until the fall of 1945 because of the Second World War.

His Oxford doctoral thesis was on a topic that would eventually dominate decades of Canadian political debate: how to amend the constitution.

Back in Quebec, he practised law and honed his interest in education when he acted as legal counsel for organizations such as the federations of school boards and of classical colleges.

He was also involved with the provincial Liberals, running unsuccessfully in the 1956 election and a 1957 by-election. He also vied for the party leadership, but lost to Mr. Lesage, who led the Liberals to victory in the June, 1960, general election.

Within a year of becoming a cabinet minister, Mr. Gérin-Lajoie unveiled a school-reform program, la Grande Charte de l’éducation, and overcame his first major hurdle: convincing the premier to collect across Quebec a 2-per-cent sales tax to finance the proposal.

After the Liberals won another election, in 1962, the next step was Bill 60, which created an Education Department, despite the Roman Catholic clergy’s fears that schools would lose their denominational character.

Mr. Gérin-Lajoie stumped across Quebec to promote the bill, having breakfasts with village notables, lunching with the Rotary club, meeting bishops and parish priests, and ending his days with evening public assemblies.

“All the children of Quebec, all the boys and girls had the right to access education at all levels as soon as possible. … It was a duty for us to go as fast as possible,” he recalled in 2009 in a legislature oral history.

On May 14, 1964, he was sworn in as Quebec’s first education minister since 1875.

He hired as his personal adviser Jean-Paul Desbiens, the Marist brother who had published under the pen name Frère Untel a stinging criticism of Quebec’s church-run public education.

The reforms Mr. Gérin-Lajoie championed didn’t come without a backlash. His foes painted him as the man who was taking the crucifix out of the classroom. Chief Justice Frédéric Dorion of the Quebec Superior Court complained that religious content was being removed from school books “to please a handful of agnostics.”

Mr. Gérin-Lajoie also ruffled feathers in Ottawa after his government bypassed federal officials and signed an educational exchange agreement with France in 1965. In a speech before the consular corps in Montreal, he outlined the argument that, under the British North America Act, Quebec had the power to act internationally in areas of provincial jurisdiction such as education or culture.

The heady days of the Lesage government ended abruptly in 1966, when the Liberals were defeated in a general election. In opposition, their unity would be tested by rising nationalist feelings and conflicting views on constitutional issues.

At the party convention in 1967, Mr. Lévesque quit the Liberals after delegates rejected his independence proposals. The convention instead voted in principle for Mr. Gérin-Lajoie’s idea to seek a special status for Quebec within the federation. However, a year later, the party abandoned its drive for special status.

With his proposal shunted aside and little chance of fulfilling his ambition to become Liberal leader, Mr. Gérin-Lajoie resigned his seat in June, 1969.

His old schoolmate, Mr. Trudeau, now the prime minister, reached out and named him to a post with the federal Prices and Incomes Commission, then appointed him to head the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in 1970.

Under his direction, CIDA expanded foreign aid beyond Commonwealth countries, into French-speaking Africa. But his seven-year term didn’t end happily. The former senior cabinet minister didn’t turn into a low-key bureaucrat and he was criticized for his imperious style and spendthrift manners.

He went on to head his own eponymous foundation to support education programs in developing countries.

In another move that left an imprint on Canadian education, his foundation launched in 1991 La Dictée P.G.L. A French-language dictation challenge combined with charitable fundraising, it has become a popular event in francophone schools across the country.

In 2008, in an interview with the journalist Jean Paré, Mr. Gérin-Lajoie was asked to name the lasting achievement of his long career.

“Without a doubt, to have broadened access to education, from elementary to the end of high school, to all children of Quebec,” he replied.

Mr. Gérin-Lajoie leaves his four children, François, Bernard, Sylvie and Dominique. His wife, Andrée Papineau, died four months before him.