Gilles Duceppe the longest-serving leader

Gilles Duceppe is heading into his eighth election, and sixth as Bloc leader.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe rises during Question Period March 3, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press )
Gilles Duceppe, the longest-serving federal leader, is heading into eighth election and his sixth as Bloc leader.

And the experienced politician is going into it with a 95.3 per cent vote from his February, 2011 leadership review — some of his strongest levels of support as leader.

The party voted on their election platform and campaign budget that same weekend after Duceppe urged them to be prepared for an election, expecting Prime Minister Stephen Harper to push for one.

Duceppe's a shrewd political player. Ask the Conservatives, and they might admit it in private, after the Bloc Québécois chief schooled them in the October 2008 federal election in Quebec. Harper's party had some traction in Quebec at the beginning of the election campaign, but then came the controversial Conservative announcements about arts funding cuts and changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, both decried by many Quebecers. 

Duceppe jumped on the issues and his campaign gained life. Tory fortunes plummeted, taking with them any dreams of forming a majority government.

Some may argue that Duceppe only finished the dinner that was nicely handed to him — as his party won 49 of the province's 75 seats while the Conservatives remained at 10 — but if you take a look at his personal and political history, it's not hard to see that he was well prepared to deal with the opportunity that was presented.

Vital Signs

Born: July 22, 1947, in Montreal. First elected to Parliament: 1990.

Profession: Hospital orderly, union organizer.

Personal stuff: Married to Yolande Brunelle; two children, Alexis and Amélie. His maternal grandfather was British.

Duceppe, the first politician ever directly elected to the House of Commons on a sovereigntist platform, won a 1990 byelection in the Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie, running officially as an Independent but really under the banner of the fledgling Bloc Québécois, which had just been formed but not formally registered.

That byelection followed the collapse of the Meech Lake accord and the founding of the Bloc by an informal group of former Tory and Liberal MPs under the leadership of the charismatic Lucien Bouchard.

Duceppe, who had spent much of his adult life casting about for a party that reflected his left-wing idealism, finally found a political home.

After Bouchard resigned in 1996 to become leader of the Parti Québécois and Quebec premier, Michel Gauthier spent a year as leader, struggling to control an unruly caucus. When Gauthier resigned, Duceppe stepped in, winning 52.8 per cent support at a leadership convention in March 1997.

That makes him the longest-serving party leader in the House of Commons, with five election campaigns as leader now under his belt, as well as one strong attempt to bring down the minority Conservative government.

In the blood

The son of revered Quebec actor Jean Duceppe and Hélène Rowley, Gilles 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.

Politics surrounded Duceppe when he was growing up. His father worked on Jean Drapeau's 1954 campaign for the Montreal mayoralty and was one of the federal NDP's founding members in 1961.

Duceppe became a separatist at age 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 Communist Workers' Party, but he has since called that membership a mistake, based on a youthful search for absolute answers.

The official parliamentary website lists his occupation as "labour organizer," but he was also the general manager of the Université de Montréal newspaper Quartier Latin while he was a student there, and he worked the night shift as a medical orderly for five years in the 1970s.

Duceppe married Yolande Brunelle in 1978. They have two children, Amélie and Alexis. In his role as Bloc leader, Duceppe is known for eloquent speeches that take the future independence of Quebec as a given, and for his well-aimed attacks on the government in question period.

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."

With Harper in the prime minister's chair, Duceppe has pressed the federal government repeatedly to end the so-called fiscal imbalance and give more money to the provinces, Quebec in particular.

His persistence has probably almost single-handedly kept the issue on the front burner. But he was outfoxed by the prime minister when he sought to have Quebec recognized as a nation by the House of Commons; Harper one-upped him by amending the resolution so that the Québécois as a people would be recognized instead, something most MPs went along with as well.

Lately, it has been pressure on Harper to compensate Quebec $2.2 billion for its harmonization of the provincial sales tax with the GST in the early 1990s. The absence of a deal in the March 22, 2011 budget sealed the Bloc's rejection of the document and helped usher in the defeat of the government.

Comfortably in charge

Duceppe loves the media spotlight and tightly controls his caucus.

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. The Bloc earned 54 of 295 seats and Official Opposition status under former leader Lucien Bouchard in 1993, but the party took only 44 of 301 seats in the 1997 election. Duceppe was widely mocked during that campaign for wearing an odd-looking hairnet while at a cheese factory. The party's standings sank further in 2000, with Bloc members elected in just 38 ridings.

However, largely because of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the Bloc rebounded in the 2004 election, when the party took 54 of the 75 seats in Quebec, and it mostly held those gains in 2006, when it won 51.

This was seen, though, as something of a letdown in Bloc circles. The party had been hoping to break through the 50 per cent support barrier in Quebec, but a surprising surge by the Stephen Harper Conservatives in the late going reduced the Bloc to 43 per cent of the vote.

The party slipped a bit in 2008 to 49 seats, despite the reversal of fortunes during the campaign.

These consolidations have made Duceppe largely unassailable within his party, and some analysts have suggested he could do well again if Quebecers decide to hedge their bets by keeping their nationalist option open in Ottawa.

In spring 2005, Duceppe was pressured to leave the federal party in order to lead the provincial Parti Québécois after the departure of Bernard Landry. But Duceppe felt he would be more useful in Ottawa, given that another election was in the offing.

The issue arose again on May 11, 2007, when Duceppe stunned the Bloc and Quebec by announcing his intention to run for the newly vacated provincial Parti Québécois leadership.

The plan was short-lived. The very next day, Duceppe withdrew his candidacy from the race and proclaimed his support for former Quebec cabinet minister Pauline Marois. Duceppe said he changed his mind after weighing the considerable support already behind Marois in "the Parti Québécois, Bloc Québécois and the general public."

Take that, Mr. Harper

After the Oct. 14, 2008, general election, Duceppe played a crucial role in the efforts to bring down Harper's minority government.

After taking power, Harper's Conservatives attempted to cut taxpayer-funded party financing and delayed an economic stimulus package in the midst of a global financial crisis. That spurred the Liberals and NDP to form a coalition, supported by the Bloc Québécois, with which they hoped to bring down the government.

The Governor General eventually decided to prorogue Parliament and the Tory government carried on, but leading up to Michaëlle Jean's decision, and after it was made, Harper and other Conservatives took aim at the coalition by sneering that it needed to link with separatists to be successful.

Duceppe played on those comments, saying it was a direct shot at Quebecers and it showed Harper's disregard for the problems of the manufacturing and forestry industry in the province. He said the auto industry in Ontario was targeted for help by the Tories but Quebec's workers were not getting the help they needed.

It was an argument that echoed again with the March 22 budget and the inability or unwillingness of the government to finalize an HST deal with Quebec.


  • The first paragraph and headline of this story have been edited from an earlier version to clarify that this is Gilles Duceppe's eighth election and sixth as leader.
    Apr 02, 2011 12:13 PM ET