Audrey Best, the shy political spouse who shunned the spotlight as she held a front-row seat for one of the most pivotal moments in Canadian history, has died.

She stood by the side of her then-husband, Lucien Bouchard, during his stirring 1995 speeches in a near-successful campaign to win Quebec independence.

But throughout that referendum campaign Best largely avoided making public utterances, as she did later when Bouchard became Quebec premier.

Best died of breast cancer Tuesday after a three-year battle which hospitalized her for 17 days, said a spokesman for Montreal's Jewish General Hospital.

The French-born, California-raised Best was surrounded by close relatives when she died. She was 50 years old.

Best was on a flight from Paris in the late 1980s when she met Bouchard, who at the time was Canada's ambassador to France under the Mulroney government.

They were together as he became a federal cabinet minister, then leader of the Bloc Quebecois and, finally, Quebec premier. She later built her own career as a McGill-educated lawyer.

In one of her rare political statements, Best expressed displeasure to the media on the day in 1995 that her husband announced plans to become Quebec premier. She failed to express much enthusiasm, either, when asked about her husband's independence cause.

When Bouchard finally left politics just more than five years later, he mentioned his family in his retirement speech. He wanted to spend more time with his wife and their two children.

"Our years are numbered, and I have a young family," Bouchard said in that Jan. 11, 2001, resignation announcement, which shocked the province.

"It's especially precious to me because it came later in life. Audrey gave me more than I could ever give back. I would also like to live to its fullest this wonderful adventure of educating our nine- and 11-year-old children.

"Alexandre and Simon need me. And I need to be with them and give them the best of myself, of my energy and time."

The couple split up several years later.

Over that time, Best built a career at one of the country's most prestigious law firms. She had worked at Heenan-Blaikie since 2000.

Her employer issued a statement Tuesday calling her a remarkable woman, endowed with a sense of humour, a zest for life, and full of empathy and kindness.

"We will miss Audrey very much. She was an exceptional lawyer but it's her dynamic and charming personality that we will remember most," said the firm's founder, Roy Heenan.

"It's very difficult to accept such a loss when, only two months ago, she was with us working with energy and enthusiasm."

Back in 1994, a Los Angeles Times profile said Best described herself as a "Navy brat."

She was born in France on the Cote d'Azur to an American father and French mother, learned both languages, held both citizenships, and grew up in California.

Best explained she was perfectly happy to be apart from Bouchard's political life in Ottawa. At the time, she was living in Montreal with their children.

"I would say I'm very independent, first off, and . . . I enjoy my solitude immensely," she told The Times.

"I have two small children, and that's difficult, of course, raising my children when I'm alone a lot, but when I put the kids to bed and I'm all alone in the house, I'm very happy."

Best expressed disappointment when Bouchard announced he was seeking the leadership of the Parti Quebecois. It had only been a few weeks since the 1995 referendum.

During much of Bouchard's news conference, she stood with her arms crossed, turned slightly away from him.

"I'm an American and so I see the whole question of Quebec sovereignty more objectively," she said in fluent French.

When asked how she felt about her husband becoming premier she replied: "It's true that it was not my first choice. . . I had thought Lucien would return to private life after the referendum."

The Times' profile said they met shortly after Best's marriage to her high-school sweetheart had ended and she had quit her job to travel for a year.

She told the newspaper they met on a flight from Paris to London, after she dropped a magazine into the aisle. The man sitting across from her picked it up and they struck up a conversation.

He invited her to have breakfast with him at London's airport, but she hesitated and instead gave him her address in California.

"I was real leery," she said, referring to her first encounter with Bouchard.

"I didn't know this gentleman at all."

They exchanged letters and, when she later moved to Paris to live with her grandmother, they began dating. They were married in February 1989.

But political life took its toll on their relationship.

"I met an ambassador, I married a minister . . . What is the next stage?" Best once asked Bouchard.

News of Best's passing came on the same day that Bouchard issued a statement announcing his return to a job in the public spotlight.

The ex-premier will become chief lobbyist for Quebec's budding shale-gas industry, currently involved in a bruising public-relations battle against environmentalists keen to halt its development.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest described Best on Tuesday as a generous woman.

"Quebecers will remember her as a woman who represented Quebec with distinction," Charest said in a statement.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois also offered her condolences to Best's family, particularly Bouchard and their sons.

"Your mother will always remain in our hearts," Marois said.