Gilles Duceppe is an odd sort of fixture on the federal political scene. The Bloc Québécois leader remains a separatist, of course, and thus capable of arousing outrage, as he did when he recently praised sovereigntists as “resisters,” borrowing a term usually reserved for those who opposed the Nazis in the Second World War. Yet he is also an unthreatening part of the furniture in Ottawa, and so too, after two decades, is his party. Although Conservatives and Liberals might not advertise the fact to voters outside Quebec, both parties have, when it suited them, worked closely with the Bloc on policy and politics. “It’s funny,” Duceppe told Maclean’s, “when we’re supporting the Tories, the Liberals are telling the Tories, ‘You’re sleeping with the separatists!’ And when we’re supporting the Liberals, the Tories are telling the Liberals, ‘You’re sleeping with the separatists!’ One day I told them, ‘You all want to be in bed with us but no one wants to marry us.’ ”
He has a point. Federalist politicians haven’t quite figured out how far to go with the Bloc, even as the party celebrates—if that’s the right word—its 20th anniversary this month. But if Duceppe revels in keeping federalists off balance, he’s arguably less forthright in acknowledging ambiguity in the minds of Bloc supporters about his party’s real function. Born out of the ashes of the failed Meech Lake constitutional accord, the Bloc was supposed to help pave the way to Quebec’s separation, tout de suite. But after the hair’s-breadth victory for the federalist side in the 1995 referendum, the next day of reckoning on Quebec’s future was postponed indefinitely. By giving sovereigntists a party to vote for in federal elections, and assuring them of a staunchly nationalist voice on Parliament Hill between campaigns, has the Bloc evolved into a sort of safety valve, even helping Canada stay together by easing the pressure to bring on another referendum?
Duceppe brushes that heretical notion aside with a casual, “Not at all.” But the Bloc at least provides a window onto Parliament Hill for Quebec nationalists who might otherwise turn their backs entirely on Ottawa. “I would say the positive side of the Bloc is that it forces many Quebecers to remain interested in federal politics, something that would not be as salient without the Bloc,” says François Rocher, director of the School of Political Studies at the bilingual University of Ottawa. And pollster Christian Bourque, of the Montreal firm Leger Marketing, says the Bloc has evolved from its early rabble-rousing days into a far more cautious force. “Their discourse of clash and confrontation,” Bourque says, “has turned into one of just defending Quebec’s interests.”
Duceppe denies that the Bloc’s comfortably settled-in status in Ottawa tends to reduce the sense of urgency in the separatist cause. He points to a historical precedent: the repeated election to the British Parliament of Irish MPs in favor of “home rule” for Ireland from the 1870s through to the achieving of Irish independence in 1922: “They were elected with huge majorities to Westminster, and they were facing the same kind of argument: ‘If you’re there, it’s like a safety valve.’ But they succeeded.”
Duceppe says his views on Quebec and Canada have not changed in any substantial way over the past 20 years. Still, in his early days on Parliament Hill, he says, he was struck by how MPs from the rest of Canada with divergent ideological and party roots—Liberal, NDP, and, in those days, Reform—could all speak of Canada with the same underlying conviction. “And I think this is beautiful,” he says. “I’m telling Quebecers that if we want a sovereign Quebec, we have to unite independently of our differences on philosophical issues or economic issues or social issues.”
But like the Parti Québécois in provincial politics, the Bloc leans firmly to the left, often leaving room in the Quebec debate for federalists, or sometimes lapsed separatists, to make the case for less interventionist and less expensive government policies. Many of Duceppe’s supporters like it that way. In fact, Tristan Dénommée, the political science major from Montréal who founded the University of Ottawa’s Bloc club—the first accredited BQ student club outside Quebec—puts more emphasis on the Bloc’s left-wing bent than its quest for independence. “From my point of view, the Bloc has put away the idea of sovereignty. They just want to be in Ottawa to represent the interests of Quebec,” Dénommée said. “We’re a little bit more socialist than the rest of Canada.”
Long exposure to Ottawa may have shaped the Bloc in other ways. Suzanne Tremblay, a former Bloc MP, said in a panel discussion in Quebec City earlier this spring that being in Ottawa brought blocquistes into direct contact with the greater ethnic diversity of Canadian public life, perhaps influencing them to become open to Quebecers from immigrant communities. That was, however, a rare nod in the direction of recognizing any positive values rubbing off on Bloc members from their routine interaction with politicians from the rest of Canada. Duceppe is more prone to touting tactical gains. He points to the exposure his MPs get to foreign affairs and trade files. “We’re meeting the ambassadors regularly, we’re participating to all those foreign missions, we’re receiving the foreign missions in Ottawa,” he says.
Back in 1990, few would have predicted the Bloc would become so deeply entrenched that it would be incorporated into the capital’s diplomatic swirl. It came to life that May, when Lucien Bouchard quit Brian Mulroney’s Tories over his objection to proposed changes to the Meech Lake accord, and was followed by a handful of other disgruntled Quebec Tories and a couple of Liberals. A union organizer named Gilles Duceppe joined their ranks a few months later, when he won a Montreal by-election. In 1993’s cataclysmic federal election, the Bloc won 54 seats, dominating Quebec, and emerging as the official Opposition.
Bouchard went on to lead the separatist side to a heartbreaking defeat in the 1995 referendum. Jumping to provincial politics, he left open the Bloc leader’s chair, which Duceppe has filled since 1997.
That leaves him today, at 62, the longest-serving leader on the federal stage. The closest he came to exiting was in 2007, when he said he would run for the leadership of the Parti Québécois, and then, in an embarrassing reversal a day later, dropped out. In the 2008 federal election, his Bloc won 49 of Quebec’s 75 seats, but its popular vote share dropped to 38 per cent, far below highs near 50 per cent in 1993 and 2004. Duceppe strikes a pose of equanimity on those numbers. “All in all,” he said, “I think there’s a solid 40 per cent block of sovereigntist people in Quebec, there’s 40 per cent federalists and 20 per cent going from one pole to the other depending on the context.”
If support for sovereignty is stuck well below majority territory, Duceppe has still managed to stay in the fray. The Conservatives needed Bloc support to pass their first two budgets. Harper tabled and passed a House motion in 2006 recognizing the Québécois as a nation within Canada. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s 2007 deal to eliminate the so-called “fiscal imbalance” by transferring billions more to the provinces was, in part, a reaction to hectoring from Quebec nationalists, including the Bloc. And Duceppe’s support was integral to the failed Liberal-NDP bid to form a coalition government in 2008.
All that action, and yet Duceppe, and his main cause, can both look moribund. But perhaps viewing them that way, even seeing the Bloc as a safe outlet for separatist sentiments, is a false comfort. Rocher suggests federalists should instead regard the Bloc as a constant reminder that Quebec’s future could again turn quickly into a live issue. For his part, Duceppe professes to be patiently waiting for that turning point. “When we look at human history, sometimes a decade isn’t worth a day, and sometimes an hour is worth many decades,” he said. “I’m telling you we’re working very hard and our hour will come.”