Not any more

Duceppe celebrates 20 years of futility

In Canada on August 13, 2010 at 09:02

Graeme Hamilton: Duceppe celebrates 20 years of futility

Graham Hughes for National Post

Graham Hughes for National Post

Gilles Duceppe speaks during an interview at his riding office in Montreal on Aug. 11.

  August 13, 2010 – 7:00 am

Graeme Hamilton

This will be a weekend packed with celebrations for Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, for whom Friday marks the 20th anniversary of his election to Parliament. On Friday, a garden party is scheduled for Montreal’s Parc Lafontaine, with hot dogs, corn on the cob and face painting for the children. On Sunday, Mr. Duceppe will be the guest of honour at a “gala tribute,” where Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois and a number of surprise guests will sing his praises.

But at the risk of letting loose a skunk in the sovereigntist garden party, it is worth asking whether two decades in Ottawa is really something for the Bloc to be celebrating. Imagine that after 20 years of single-mindedly pursuing your dream, it remains as distant as ever. Would you break out the cake?

In an interview this week in his Montreal riding office, Mr. Duceppe said that since winning an Aug. 13, 1990, byelection in Laurier-Sainte-Marie, he and his Bloc colleagues have made progress on the road to sovereignty. He sees cause for celebration.

“The support of the public for the Bloc is pretty extraordinary,” he said.“We have won six consecutive general elections. I have obtained seven mandates. We are in a pretty good position in the polls. We are recognized in Quebec, but also I think in the rest of Canada, as serious, rigourous people.”

There is no denying the Bloc’s enduring popularity among Quebec voters, who have consistently given the party the majority of seats in Quebec since 1993. Recent polls show the pattern would be repeated if an election were held now. But when the Bloc emerged from the ashes of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, longevity was never the intention. It was to be a temporary rainbow coalition uniting Quebec nationalist MPs of different stripes until the fast-approaching day when Quebec became independent. A radio interviewer this week reminded Mr. Duceppe of the T-shirts from the 1993 general election declaring it would be the Bloc’s first and last campaign.

Among the mementoes hanging in the riding office is a letter from the Bloc’s first leader, Lucien Bouchard, thanking him for attending the party’s founding convention. Tellingly, the letter is starting to fade. Mr. Duceppe, 63, is committed to running in the next federal election, which will be his eighth as a candidate and sixth as leader. In the party’s early days, Mr. Bouchard had worried that the separatist contingent in Ottawa could become a sort of “insurance policy” for skittish Quebecers: They could safely cast a vote for a sovereigntist party without any danger of it actually leading to a referendum.

Mr. Duceppe said that has not occurred, and in fact the House of Commons has become a training ground for the future leaders of an independent Quebec. “I have learned in Ottawa what it means to have a country,” he said. “When the word Canada is mentioned, all MPs from all the Canadian parties, left, right, NDP, Reform, Tories, Liberals, they all rise together. And I admire that. That is strength.” On a more concrete level, Quebec politicians have gained experience in fields not present in the provincial legislature. “Quebec experience in foreign affairs is very limited. It happens in Ottawa,” he said. “Defence happens in Ottawa. We are learning things, for sure.”

Still, all the preparation will be for naught if Quebecers maintain their aversion to the idea of a third referendum. In an interview with TVA in June, Mr. Bouchard said that while he is still believes Quebec should become sovereign, the movement has stalled. Asked whether he expected to see it in his lifetime, the 71-year-old replied with a smile, “That depends how long I’m going to live. I might live to be very old. My mother lived to a very old age.” (Alice Simard-Bouchard died at age 95.)

Mr. Duceppe is more optimistic, taking comfort from the fact that the political winds can shift suddenly. “I think the need [for sovereignty] is greater now than in 1990,” he said. When he entered politics and became the first person elected under the Bloc banner, there was still a move to have Quebec sign the Constitution. The Charlottetown accord, opposed as insufficient by the Bloc, was defeated in a 1992 referendum. Now, Mr. Duceppe said, the only options for Quebecers are the status quo or separation. “Federalists tell us there is no longer a project for renewal. The fruit is not ripe, the land is not fertile. It’s impossible to change the Canadian Constitution. That is clear. Take it or leave it.”

His lengthy presence on the federal scene, with his strong performances in English-language leaders’ debates, have earned him the grudging respect of many in the rest of Canada. When he is on holiday outside the country, he said, he is often approached by English-Canadians asking to be photographed with him. “I am proud that in the rest of Canada we have shown that sovereigntists are not crazies, not extremists,” he said. “We don’t eat babies for breakfast.”

And his inclusive vision of Quebec nationalism, with an outreach to Quebec’s visible minorities, was a welcome change from Jacques Parizeau’s jarring, ethnocentric referendum-night speech in 1995. Even Mr. Bouchard, when he was Quebec premier, used complaints that Quebec was being humiliated by the rest of Canada to stir indignation among voters. The passing years may have allowed the sovereigntist movement to ripen more than its founders would have liked, but with that has come a greater maturity. “The message to Quebecers is to say we are not against Canada. Canada is a great country. I have great esteem for the Canadian nation,” Mr. Duceppe said. “Let’s stop blaming Canada and assume our responsibilities…. Sovereignty must not be achieved out of resentment.”

National Post

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