Gilles Duceppe is leader of the Bloc Québécois, the federal party committed to realizing a Quebec that is separate from the rest of Canada. He represents the riding of Laurier—Sainte-Marie.
The Bloc Québécois (BQ, or “Bloc”) won 49 seats in the federal election held on October 14, 2008. During the election, the Conservative Party of Canada was the Bloc’s main rival for voters in Quebec. There was some concern about the legitimacy of the BQ as a party at a time when separatist sentiment has waned — the Bloc was created to protect the interests of Quebecers, preserve French language and culture, and to promote sovereignty — but it maintains a strong presence in federal Parliament as evidenced by the electoral results.
The Bloc opposed the budget tabled by the Conservative government in January 2009; however, the bill passed, ensuring the viability of the government for the time being. By contrast, in December 2008, Duceppe signed an agreement giving his party’s support to a proposed Liberal-NDP coalition. The agreement was reached because the opposition parties were critical of the governing Conservatives’ economic and fiscal update delivered in November 2008. Though not formally part of the coalition, the Bloc had pledged to support it for 18 months. There was no non-confidence vote because Governor General Michaelle Jean prorogued (postponed) Parliament.
Duceppe has been leader of the Bloc Québécois for more than a decade, but his affiliation with the party spans even longer. In 1996, he became the Bloc’s interim leader, when then-leader Lucien Bouchard resigned to lead the Parti Québécois in the lead-up to the October 1995 referendum in Quebec, when the province’s association with Canada was the subject of a provincial vote. From 1997, Duceppe assumed the leadership following the short-lived tenure of Michel Gauthier, who resigned a year after taking the party’s reigns. Previously, from 1990 to 1996, Duceppe served as the party whip, responsible for ensuring unity among the BQ’s caucus members. In 1993, the Bloc made history by winning enough seats to form the Official Opposition.
Promoting Quebec’s interests as well as Quebec sovereignty are key forces that drive the Bloc Québécois and its agenda. In federal elections, however, the Party campaigns on a range of issues. The environment, health care, child care and improving conditions for working-class Canadians are important areas of concern.
The Politics of Separation
During Duceppe’s tenure as leader, the Bloc’s seat count in the House of Commons has both risen and fallen. Following the Party’s history-making electoral success in 1993 with 54 seats, the Party suffered a setback in the 1997 federal election, Duceppe’s first campaign as leader, when it won 44 seats. The Bloc’s fortunes fell even further in 2000, when it won 38 seats. At that time, the federal Liberal Party held the majority of seats. In 2004, the Party’s fortunes were restored when 54 Bloc MPs won their ridings. At the time of writing, the BQ’s representation in the House of Commons stands at 49 seats.
On two occasions, there has been speculation that Duceppe would resign from federal politics in favour of running for the leadership of the Quebec-based Parti Québécois. The first came in 2005 when then-PQ leader Bernard Landry resigned; Duceppe, however, chose to remain in Ottawa, asserting that he could be more effective in fighting for sovereignty at the federal level while leading the Bloc into the 2006 general election. In 2007, following the short-lived tenure of André Boisclair as PQ leader, Duceppe announced he would run for the PQ leadership, only to change his mind the very next day. The move earned him criticism both from journalists and political opponents alike.
Another chapter in Duceppe’s history, particularly in the time preceding the 2004 federal election, was the supposition that the days of the Bloc and its leader were numbered. At the time, public sentiment in Quebec for sovereignty had waned, reaching all-time lows, and it seemed the Party had lost its raison d’être. However, the fortunes of Duceppe and the Bloc rose significantly in the wake of Quebecers’ anger over the so-called sponsorship scandal of the day, and allegations of corruption by some members of the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal Party.
A New Political Party is Born
The Bloc Québécois emerged as an entity in 1990 when Lucien Bouchard, a prominent cabinet minister in the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, and a group of Progressive Conservative and Liberal MPs, left their respective parties. The Bloc was originally created as an informal coalition with the objective of promoting Quebec sovereignty at the federal level. However, it soon evolved into a full-fledged federal political party, despite that it has always run candidates only in Quebec ridings. The BQ was bolstered by considerable dissatisfaction with the federal system and increased sentiment for separatism in Quebec following the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. Duceppe’s victory in the 1990 by-election in the riding of Laurier—Sainte Marie was a watershed moment in the Bloc’s development: it showed that a sovereigntist party at the federal level was capable of winning seats in Quebec.
Ideology and Activism
Quebec nationalism and sovereignty are intrinsic elements of Duceppe’s political view. He advocates ‘sovereignty association,’ a particular form of Quebec nationalism, that involves sovereignty for Quebec but that also includes a political and economic association with the rest of Canada. This ideal contrasts with hard-line nationalism, which advocates for a completely independent Quebec; according to this view, the new nation would cut all its political and economic ties with Canada, and act as a fully autonomous nation in both domestic and international affairs.
Proponents of sovereignty association often cite the European Union (EU) as a model; the EU allows for strong national governments within a very decentralized continental political and economic framework. In this vein, for example, Duceppe has suggested that an independent Quebec would continue to be integrated within the Canadian and North American economies.
Duceppe embraced the ideas of Quebec sovereignty and nationalism following his earlier exposure to the ideologies of communism and social democracy during his university days. For a three-year period he was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Workers’ Party, which espoused ideas of class oppression and revolution. In retrospect, Duceppe considers his Communist affiliation a mistake — one stemming from his desire for fundamental change. With the sharply declining influence of the Catholic Church during those years, communism had provided Duceppe with an alternative set of values while simultaneously offering him a sense of security. While Duceppe turned away from Marxism-Leninism as a strict blueprint, to this day, its general values of equality and social change continue to influence his political perspective.
Following his university studies, Duceppe entered into the Company of Young Canadians (CYC), a short-lived federal government youth program inspired by the US Peace Corps. Established in 1966, the CYC encouraged social, economic and community development in Canada. It trained young Canadians in social organization techniques, then placed them to work in community programs across the country. The initiative ended in 1977, following criticisms that many of the CYC’s recruits were engaging in Marxist and separatist activities.
Following his involvement with the CYC, Duceppe became a union negotiator for the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), a provincial union organization in Quebec, which, in the 1970s, proposed a socialist agenda for Quebec workers. Duceppe worked for the CSN from 1977 to 1990, when he resigned to run for federal political office.
A Personal Snapshot
Duceppe was born in 1947 in Montreal, Quebec, where he also grew up. He is the son of Hélène Rowley and well-known Québécois actor Jean Duceppe. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the Collège Mont-Saint-Louis, and studied political science at the Université de Montréal.
He is married to Yolande Brunelle. Together, they have two children.