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Interview with Gilles Duceppe from The National

Reporter: Susan Bonner
Producer: Sylvia Thomson
Air date: June 18, 2004
Profile from The National - runs 7:49VIDEO
Susan Bonner's report on Gilles Duceppe aired on The National on
Friday, June 18, 2004.
(Runs 7:49)
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Gilles Duceppe is the man of the moment in Quebec.

His Bloc Québécois is poised to win what could be its biggest electoral success.

In his third campaign as leader, Duceppe has hit his stride. He is confident, relaxed... something no one would have expected six months ago, when analysts were speculating that the party was heading towards its demise, its numbers in the House of Commons having shrunk in every election since 1993.

 In 1993, Duceppe arrived in Ottawa as the Bloc's first elected MP.
  In 1990, Duceppe arrived in Ottawa as the Bloc's first elected MP.

Asked to respond to that, Duceppe points out that in August of 1976, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau declared separatism dead in Quebec. Three months later, René Levesque and the Parti Québécois were elected for the first time.

"So there are a lot of bad prophets in Ottawa," he says.

Gilles Duceppe repeats it daily: This election is not about sovereignty.

But he admits it is the end goal for the party that could very well hold the balance of power in a minority parliament after June 28. The Bloc's role in that Parliament could be an important stepping stone on the road to independence, he says.

"The Quebec population will have given its confidence to sovereignists... that we can't deny, we are a sovereignist party, we never hid that... but it doesn't mean sovereignty is done. It means we are there to defend Quebec's interests."

Gilles Duceppe was born and raised in a working-class riding in east Montreal.

There was no family fortune, but there was fame. His father, Jean Duceppe, was an actor, a giant of the Quebec theatre and a passionate nationalist.

In his younger days, Gilles Duceppe was involved in social, student and labour issues in Quebec.
In his younger days, Gilles Duceppe was involved in social, student and labour issues in Quebec.  

The young Gilles immersed himself in the fringe politics of the 1960s. He threw himself into social issues, the student movement, the labour movement... and even became a Maoist.

"George Bernard Shaw said if you were not a communist when you were a young man, you were not a generous man," is how he describes his time in the party. "If you are still a Red over 40, then you are just plain stupid."

Duceppe was just into his 40s when he came to Ottawa as the first elected Bloc MP, joining the more well-known Lucien Bouchard and Jean Lapierre, who had bolted from their parties over the Meech Lake Accord.

He did not win the leadership when Bouchard left. That job went to Michel Gauthier.

Duceppe became leader in 1997, just before the election that year.

 Duceppe was ridiculed for this unfortunate image from the 1997 campaign.
  Duceppe was ridiculed for this unfortunate image from the 1997 campaign.

It was a rough campaign. He was ridiculed for the unfortunate image of him wearing a hairnet while touring a cheese factory, and for a stumbling campaign in which his bus got lost while touring. The BQ ended up with just 44 seats, down 10 ridings from its previous showing, and that number sank to 38 in the 2000 election.

That's all behind him now.

This spring, he gave a strong performance in Parliament, where the Bloc beat the Liberal sponsorship scandal drum long before any other party... and helped shape other policy directions in the House of Commons as well.

"We fought on unemployment insurance, [were] very involved in foreign affairs concerning Iraq, the role of the United Nations. We were very involved in Kyoto and the environment at large," Duceppe says. "I think even those who do not agree with us tell us, 'Well, you are doing a very rigorous job.'"

But how will the Bloc manoeuvre in a potentially explosive minority Parliament? Could a socially progressive party work with a right-leaning Conservative minority? Alternatively, could it work with its archenemies, the Liberals?

Gilles Duceppe says yes on both counts. A coalition is impossible, but informally, issue by issue, he can do business.

"We don't have that blind, stupid partisan attitude that if it comes from the red, I'm a blue, I am against it... or if it comes from the blue, I am a red, I am against it.

"I don't mind if it is coming from the Liberals or the Tories or the NDP. Is it good?... I support that. And I think citizens are expecting the politicians to change and to govern like that... based on the commitments you've made during the campaign and based on respect for each other."

Duceppe has used the campaign to draw his policy lines in the sand.

The Bloc has helped shape policy in the House of Commons, Duceppe-says.
The Bloc has helped shape policy in the House of Commons, Duceppe says.  

The Bloc would vote against any proposal to end Canada's commitment to the Kyoto protocol, against any plans to restrict same-sex marriage or official bilingualism, against any move to abolish the gun registry.

But Duceppe rejects any suggestion that the Bloc would vote to bring down a government to try to prove federalism doesn't work for Quebec.

"It is stupid logic that says, 'We hope it goes bad in Ottawa; then it will help sovereignty.' That is not true. People are more confident to change things when things are getting better. We have to learn as Quebecers to win. I want to be a winner."

He could be about to win big in Quebec, with some analysts predicting he could beat Lucien Bouchard's record of taking 54 of the province's 75 seats.

He'd use the power to try to broker a new arrangement between the provinces and the federal government to send more money and clout to his province and the others.

The BQ leader says Canadians have nothing to fear from a forceful Bloc presence in Ottawa.

"It is even a good thing for Canadians that the Bloc is there, because no one can deny that even in the worst of the polls, there is 40 per cent sovereignists in Quebec. In politics, it is always better to have those political streams within Parliament than outside Parliament."

But as his star rises, some muse about Duceppe going back home to lead the Parti Québécois in the next election.

Asked if he would like to be the premier of Quebec, he says: "I don't know. I don't at all. I don't see life like that."

Duceppe says he's committed to serving out his mandate in the next federal Parliament, however long that is, and continuing his fight for sovereignty one step at a time.

"I think we will have the confidence of the people and then the Parti Québécois has to do its work to win an election and then come to a referendum... not against Canada, we have nothing against Canada; we are losing time with that strategy... but for Quebec...

"I am not doing anything against Canada. I want to do something for Quebec, to have a relationship nation to nation, country to country."

When The National asks if a big win on June 28 is one more step in that progression towards victory on a sovereignty vote, Duceppe says: "Well, it is a good thing, of course. If you ask me if it is better to win or lose, I will tell you it is better to win."

Will there be another referendum within five years?

"I hope so," he says.

Can the sovereignists win that referendum?

"I'm sure of it. I am sure of it."


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