Righteous outrage always came naturally to Gilles Duceppe. It seemed to live just behind those icy blue eyes of his, to be summoned on command usually when the cameras were rolling. It was his shtick, part and parcel of a narrative crafted over 21 years in federal politics: sovereignists are the only beings morally capable of defending Quebec’s interests in that foreign land of Ottawa. “The smell of scandal is wafting from the office of the Prime Minister,” the former Bloc Québécois leader belted, eyes ablaze, in a typical stump speech last April. “The Bloc will force Stephen Harper to be accountable as it did with the Liberals and the sponsorship scandal. That we will do.”
Odd, then, to see Duceppe embroiled in a scandal of his own, one that has already sullied his formidable reputation and will in all likelihood spell the end of his political career. Certainly, for a man who prided himself on his hot-blooded honesty, it doesn’t look good: as La Presse reported, Duceppe’s party paid its director general Gilbert Gardner with parliamentary funds for upwards of seven years. This is an apparent violation of House rules, which state that such funds must be used for parliamentary, not partisan, ends. La Presse also reported that Duceppe’s office paid the spouse of his chief of staff and allowed her to use parliamentary resources as she produced a book commemorating the Bloc’s 20 years in Ottawa.
The news has already stymied his attempted usurping of the Parti Québécois leadership—a move that, had it been successful, would have ushered the 64-year-old into the second act of his political career.
These second acts are something of a rite of passage in the Quebec political arena. Lucien Bouchard left the Bloc to take the helm of the Parti Québécois—only to lose the 1995 referendum. Jean Charest was leader of the floundering Progressive Conservatives. Long before both, former premier Robert Bourassa was summarily punted from office in 1976, “the most hated man in Quebec,” according to one of his own cabinet ministers. Shortly after taking office, Premier René Lévesque struck and killed a vagrant while driving along a Montreal thoroughfare well after midnight, his mistress at his side.
Yet in all four cases, their misfortune (self-inflicted or otherwise) only bolstered their public personas. Bouchard became the de facto face of Quebec obstinacy, referendum loss notwithstanding; Charest, the scrappy fighter, went on to become one of Quebec’s longest-serving premiers; Bourassa, the somewhat oily technocrat, returned as premier nine years later to sort out Quebec’s constitutional mess; Lévesque, the tragically flawed lothario, returned to tug Quebec’s collective heartstrings once again.
Sadly for Duceppe, his misfortune plays directly against his own myth. In 2004—the very year his party began paying Gardner’s salary with public funds—the former labour organizer successfully converted Quebecers’ ire at what became known as the sponsorship scandal into electoral success. In trying to sell Quebecers on the merits of the Canadian flag via a slush-funded public relations campaign, Duceppe argued, the Liberal government of the time demonstrated the frank immorality of the federalist option. The inference of the Bloc’s campaign slogan of that year—“A clean party in Quebec”—was difficult to miss: everyone else was dirty. Not coincidentally, support for sovereignty jumped.
Duceppe’s dramatic tumble has wider implications for the province’s sovereignty movement. Duceppe was, and likely remains, one of the province’s most popular leaders. Had he taken over the PQ leadership from Pauline Marois, a putsch hatched by the forever-restive anti-Marois elements within the PQ, Duceppe would have probably thrived. As it stands, Duceppe was forced to renounce any PQ leadership intentions in the wake of the staffing revelations. And though Marois lived through yet another internal attack, she now has the larger truth to deal with: she is chronically unpopular amongst the voting public. PQ MNA Bernard Drainville even suggested the PQ “may cease to exist” following the next election.
Duceppe maintains he did nothing wrong, though his former colleagues are already distancing themselves. “How Mr. Duceppe as a parliamentarian managed the funds in Ottawa is Mr. Duceppe’s jurisdiction,” said newly minted Bloc Québécois Leader Daniel Paillé recently. Time is a crushing reality among Quebec sovereignists—it always seems to be running out—and, robbed of his second act, Gilles Duceppe won’t likely be its saviour.