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Gilles Duceppe
Leader, Bloc Québécois

Gilles Duceppe was the first politician ever elected to the House of Commons on a sovereigntist platform. He won a 1990 byelection in the Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte Marie, running as an Independent.

 Gilles Duceppe
  BQ Leader Gilles Duceppe waves the Gay Pride flag as he takes part in a 2003 parade in Montreal. (CP photo)
An informal group of former Tory and Liberal MPs enraged by the defeat of the Meech Lake accord became an official party a few months later under Duceppe's mentor, Lucien Bouchard. And the Bloc Québécois was born.

After Bouchard resigned in late 1995 to become leader of the Parti Québécois and premier of Quebec, Michel Gauthier spent a year as leader, struggling to control an unruly caucus. When Gauthier resigned, Duceppe won 52.8 per cent of the party's support at a leadership convention in March 1997.

 Katherine Kanty profiles BQ leader Gilles Duceppe. - Runs 3:07AUDIO
Katherine Kanty profiles BQ leader Gilles Duceppe.
(Runs 3:07)

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That length of service as party leader gives him a six-year head start on the other three federal party chiefs testing their mettle in this campaign.

The 56-year-old son of revered Quebec actor Jean Duceppe and Hélène Rowley, Duceppe has said he developed an early distaste for anglophones, even though his maternal grandfather, John James Rowley, was British by birth.

Duceppe's English-speaking Grade 6 teacher slapped him for complaining when the French students had to stand in the aisles on a school bus, and he slapped her back. "If you're talking about social justice, that event marked me," he told the Ottawa Citizen years later.

Gilles Duceppe
Theatre company founder Jean Duceppe and his four children. Gilles is the eldest, sitting at the left.  

Politics surrounded him growing up. His father worked on Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau's 1954 campaign and was one of the federal NDP's founding members in 1961.

Duceppe became a separatist at the age of 20 in Canada's centennial year, inspired by René Lévesque's founding of the Mouvement souveraineté-association in late 1967. Later he spent three years in the Marxist-Leninist Communist Workers' Party; he has since called that membership a mistake, based on a youthful search for absolute answers.

Susan Bonner profiles BQ leader Gilles Duceppe. - Runs: 7:49VIDEO
Susan Bonner profiles BQ leader Gilles Duceppe. (Runs: 7:49)
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The official parliamentary website lists his occupation as "labour organizer," but he also was the general manager of the Université de Montréal newspaper Quartier Latin while he was a student there and worked the night shift as a medical orderly for five years in the 1970s.

Duceppe married Yolande Brunelle in 1978. They have two children, Amelie and Alexis.

In his role as BQ leader, Duceppe is known for his eloquent speeches that take the future independence of Quebec as a given, and for his well-aimed attacks against the government in question period.

Gilles Duceppe
A young Gilles sits under a portrait of his father, actor Jean Duceppe.  

Rejecting the idea that a sovereign Quebec would face economic barriers when trying to do business with the rest of Canada, Duceppe once said: "Tell Western farmers they will have to eat all their beef or watch the carcasses rot, instead of selling them to Quebec. Go to Oshawa and explain to workers in the automobile industry that they will have to go on unemployment insurance out of patriotism, because Canada cannot sell any more cars to those poor Quebecers."

Duceppe loves the media spotlight, tightly controls his caucus, and can deliver a blistering tongue-lashing with the help of his piercing blue eyes, say those who have been on the receiving end.

As Quebecers' interest in pushing ahead with sovereignty waned in the late 1990s, Duceppe led his party to successively smaller showings in the House of Commons. Though it had earned 54 of 295 seats and official Opposition status under Bouchard in 1993, the party took only 44 of 301 seats in the 1997 election, when Duceppe was widely mocked for wearing an odd-looking hairnet during a campaign stop at a cheese factory. The party's standings sank again in 2000, with BQ members elected in just 38 ridings.

 Gilles Duceppe
  Gilles Duceppe played both football and basketball during his high school days.
"Somebody always emerges to take a leadership when it's vacant, but it's hard to imagine much of a battle to replace Duceppe if he just gave up the struggle and went home," the Montreal Gazette editorialized in February 2003, pointing out that five MPs had left the BQ caucus since the 2000 election. "We wish he'd do just that, and take the rest of the Bloc MPs with him."

Polls consistently showed the party heading to an even poorer showing as 2003 drew to a close. But its fortunes rebounded in early 2004, thanks to Auditor General Sheila Fraser's revelations about federal money bound for Quebec events having been diverted to Liberal-linked ad firms over the previous nine years.

RELATED READING:

Question d'Identite, by Gilles Duceppe, published in 2000 by Lanctot Editeur.

The Bloc, by Manon Cornellier, published in 1995 by James Lorimer & Company.

Fighting for Canada, by Diane Francis, published in 1996 by Key Porter.


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