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The Bloc at 20: a conversation with Gilles Duceppe


 

The Bloc Québécois is 20 years old this month. Gilles Duceppe, its leader since 1997, has been elected to the House of Commons five times, going back to a by-election victory in his Montréal riding in August, 1990. An article about the Bloc’s unusual role as a long-entrenched separatist party on the federal scene appears in this week’s Maclean’s. Duceppe spoke with John Geddes for the story. An edited text of the interview:

Q:  Has anything important changed in your view of Quebec and Canada in the two decades since the Bloc was formed?

A: I would say not substantially, no. When I same into politics I had the deepest respect for Canada, nothing against the English population—my grandfather was a home child. In my very first years [in Ottawa] I understood better what it means to be a country, because when they were talking about Canada—whether from the Reform, the Alliance, the Liberals, the NDP—all those people were standing up for their country. Independently of their important differences on the economic plan or the social values and so on, that’s their country. And I think this is beautiful. They’re united even if they’re divided on how that country should be run. That’s quite important. I’m telling Quebecers that if you want a sovereign Quebec, we have to unite independently of the differences on philosophical issues or economic issues or social issues.

Q: Your party wants Quebec out of Canada, and yet it’s become such a familiar part of the Canadian federal scene. Do you think the Bloc is a paradox?

A: Yes, but life is a great paradox also. And I think of the lesson we’ve learned from the American Revolution: no taxation without representation. And [without the Bloc] all the people representing Quebec in Ottawa would be federalists. So I think not only is it good for Quebecers to be represented in Ottawa, it’s also good for Canadians to know another point of view. I’m not saying we have a majority—or we’d be a sovereign country—but ours is certainly an important point of view, and getting that point of view is important in democracy, knowing not only one side of the reality but knowing the whole thing.

Q: Is it possible that the Bloc acts as a sort of a safety valve for the sovereignty movement, easing the pressure for another referendum. A sovereigntist voter might take comfort from being able to cast a ballot for the Bloc in federal elections.

A: Not at all. That voter will say, “Well, the day a referendum comes, instead of having all those Liberal and Tory MPs fighting against the sovereigntists, those guys will be with us.”  Look at the difference between 1980 and 1995, when the Bloc was there. Instead of having 75 MPs campaigning [for the No side] we had two-thirds of those elected in Ottawa on the [Yes] side. That’s the first thing.

And, historically, look at what happened in Ireland before they made their independence. The British parties were not even running candidates in Ireland against the candidate for a free Ireland. They were elected with huge majorities to Westminster, and they were facing the same kind of argumentation—“If you’re there, it’s like a safety valve.” But they succeeded. There’s a lot more democracy here than there was at that time in Ireland, but the same argument was there.

Q. You’ve said that an advantage of Bloc MPs being in Ottawa is that they gain international affairs experience.

A. We’re meeting the ambassadors regularly, we’re participating to all those foreign missions, we’re receiving the foreign missions in Ottawa. And since we’re recognized as a nation, they know pretty well what it means.

Q: You’re referring to the motion passed in the House in 2006 that recognized the Québécois as a nation.

A: Yes.

Q: Some thought Prime Minister Harper outmanoeuvred you by tabling that motion, making it impossible for you to claim that Canada denied the nationhood you claim.

A: Not at all. I think, all in all, at the end of the day, we’re winning on that because now we’re using [the House motion] to say, “Well, it has to be more than symbolic.” We can use it on the international level.

Q: Another interesting political moment was your participation in the coalition deal with the Liberals and NDP in 2008. You’d come to Ottawa hoping to help take Quebec out of Canada, and there you were intimately involved in talks aimed at creating a new Canadian government. Did it feel odd?

A: Not at all. We have to go back not to 2008 but to 2004, in a hotel in Montréal, the Delta on Maisonneuve Street. I called Stephen Harper and Jack Layton to meet me then, and we signed a letter, the three of us, we sent that letter to Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, saying that if Paul Martin was to lose a confidence vote in September, don’t call an election, call us, okay? That was signed by Harper.

Q: So you’re saying there have been two such moments, when you’ve talked to federalist parties about who should form the next Canadian government.

A. And don’t forget that we supported the first two Harper budgets, because they were good. It’s funny—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 that it is funny because you all want to be in the bed with us but no one wants to marry us.

Q: What does that say about your relationship with the other federal parties?

A: Over these years, the only one who was able to call the other parties to meet, it was me. So I told them also that it takes a sovereigntist to make two federalists talk to each other.

Q: Doesn’t your ability to play that part on the federal scheme bring us back to the idea that maybe your longevity, your comfortable role in Canadian politics, undermines the sovereigntist cause?

A: It shows very clearly that I’ll be one of the people able to negotiate for a sovereign Quebec.

Q: Okay. How close do you think you are to sovereignty?

A: All in all, 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. I think this is the situation.

Q: But it’s been that way a very long time, hasn’t it?

A: When we look that the human history, I would say that sometimes a decade isn’t worth a day, and sometimes an hour is worth many decades. The hour the Berlin wall was destroyed it was worth more than a decade, a lot of decades, but that hour would have been impossible if people hadn’t been working hard for decades. I’m telling you we’re working very hard and our hour will come.

Q: As Bloc leader, you’ve traveled quite a bit in Canada. When you meet a francophone in Northern Ontario, or New Brunswick or Manitoba, don’t they seem to you like part of the family?

A: I would say they’re among the great family, the francophonie. But they’re franco-Canadians or Acadians—they’re not Quebecers. And they’re members of, I would say, a diaspora. But having said that, we have to maintain those links and reinforce those links also, as a sovereign country, with all the francophones, and first of all the franco-Canadians and the Acadians.

Q: If you win, though, the French language is bound to retreat in Canada as a whole, isn’t it?

A: Canada’s part of the Francophonie, just like a sovereign Quebec would maintain its links within the Commonwealth. It’s important for us—it’s a sphere of influence. The Francophonie is also a sphere of influence around the world. Will Canada say, “We don’t want to participate anymore to the Francophonie”? That’d be an error, a diplomatic error, an economic error.

Q: But if there were no Quebec MPs in the House of Commons, Canada wouldn’t go on being a bilingual country the way it is now.

A: The law will still be there. Are you telling me that they will abolish that?

Q: That would be my guess.

A:  I’m pretty sure that Canada will ask to maintain its role in the Francophonie. So who will represent Canada? No more Quebecers, so they will have to use franco-Canadians and Acadians. That gives a more important role for them than they have now, because people from Quebec won’t be there anymore to represent Canada within the Francophonie.

Q:  Thank you for this conversation. I’ll tell you what, let’s do it every twenty years.

A: Well, let’s make it after Quebec has said Yes.


 

The Bloc at 20: a conversation with Gilles Duceppe

  1. What kind of ridiculous statement is his that Quebecers need to vote for the Bloc so they'll be represented in Ottawa? Last I checked, ridings that send Liberal or Tory or NDP MPs from Quebec to Ottawa are also represented in Ottawa.

    • That's not what he said. He said that Quebec sovereigntists vote for the Bloc to they'll be represented in Ottawa. So that when sovereignty-related issues come up, they'll have someone there to speak on their behalf.

      Even if he had made the more general claim, though, it's easy to argue that someone from a regional party (not necessarily the Bloc – any regional party) does a better job of representing local values/needs/whatever than someone from a national party whose policies are based on what is popular across the country. For instance, the residents of Northern Ireland vote for Northern Ireland-specific parties to represent their Northern Ireland-specific policies/values. Those parties often have connections with the main national parties (e.g., the SDLP with Labour), but they are ultimately very different entities.

      (And, yes, I get that people hate on the Bloc precisely because it places regional interests over national interests, but that's not going to convince someone from Quebec not to vote for them, in the same way that Reform's western base wasn't turned off by their toxicity in eastern Canada).

  2. The most popular leader in Canada. Says a lot about the supposed leadership of our parties.

    • It's true, and it's kind of sad. I think the difference is authenticity.

      Duceppe is in Ottawa to further a specific goal. He's open and honest about that goal, and relentless in pursuing it. Everybody knows where he stands, and that he truly believes in what he's fighting for. As a bonus, the Bloc seems to make long term policy decisions with some eye to long term policy, rather then on short term polling numbers.

      If he wasn't a seperatist and ran a national party, I'd vote for it.

      • I know, at this point looking across the spectrum living in Vancouver one gets the idea that every province should have a Bloc (Province) and the problem in Canada is Ottawa and it's structure – it is impossible to reform, an anachronistic governance structure that seemed reasonable back in the 1800's but is entirely out of touch and anti-democratic in the here and now.

        In the late 90's I called for keeping the HoC as it is, first past the post but then make the Senate a Proportional Rep. body – that way the pols in the House would have to craft their laws to pass in the Senate with the full knowledge of whom would be vetting it. Get rid of that foolish regional representation in the Senate and make it as it should be, a body that is beholden to the people of Canada. SPQR for the 21st Century.

        I've often thought of returning to Mtl if the Harper Cons got a majority and fight for independence even though I love the english language and faced complete personal destruction as the outcome of arguing for language equality back in the late 80's.

  3. "I'm pretty sure that Canada will ask to maintain its role in the Francophonie. So who will represent Canada? No more Quebecers, so they will have to use franco-Canadians and Acadians. That gives a more important role for them than they have now, because people from Quebec won't be there anymore to represent Canada within the Francophonie."

    It would appear that Shelley Glover and Peter Julian are prepared, if asked:
    http://www2.parl.gc.ca/iia/Association.aspx?Lang=

  4. I can't believe he dissed you like that at the end.

    • I think he’s saying that Quebec independence will be sooner than 20 years. Not necessarily disrepect, but rather an invitation to keep talking, talk more often, and a clever way to remind us that he believes the sovereigntist movement is stronger than we think.

      English Canada is blind to many realities, unfortunately. I view the potential separation of Quebec with great sadness.

  5. Over these years, the only one who was able to call the other parties to meet, it was me. So I told them also that it takes a sovereigntist to make two federalists talk to each other.

    Gilles Duceppe: Canadian nation-builder. Call me a translator and print me up several hundred banners to hand out at the next Bloc rally.

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