Yves-François Blanchet heads to Parliament as leader of resurgent Bloc Québécois

Named leader of his party less than a year ago, when the Bloc Québécois was on the verge of extinction, Yves-François Blanchet won his riding of Beloeil-Chambly handily and take nearly a third of the popular vote in Quebec.

Former PQ minister ran for Bloc leadership when no one else would — inspired by his commitment to sovereignty

With Yves-François Blanchet at the helm, the Bloc Québécois took about a third of the popular vote in Quebec. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Named leader of his party less than a year ago, when the Bloc Québécois was on the verge of extinction, Yves-François Blanchet handily won his riding of Beloeil-Chambly on Monday night and saw his party take about a third of the popular vote in Quebec.

When Blanchet, 54, threw his name into the hat last November to lead the Bloc, he had no competition. There was no leadership convention, no fanfare. The party sent out a brief statement last January, declaring him leader by default.

Under those circumstances, political watchers could be forgiven for not predicting a change in the Bloc's fortunes any time soon.

Blanchet proved them wrong.

He may not have been on many people's radar, but in Quebec, Blanchet is a known quantity. He's been a pundit, a provincial cabinet minister and the manager of a rock star.

Committed to sovereignty

And he's been committed to Quebec sovereignty his whole life.

Blanchet was born in Drummondville in 1965, at the height of Quebec's Quiet Revolution. He was just three years old when René Lévesque, a former Liberal cabinet minister, created the Parti Québécois.

By the time he was 14, Blanchet had figured out a way to become a card-carrying PQ member — even though the party didn't sell memberships to anyone under 18.

Blanchet said Lévesque's leadership left a permanent mark on him. To this day, whenever he refers to the PQ founder, he uses the honorific "monsieur."

After graduating from Université de Montréal with a degree in history and anthropology, Blanchet took a job working for the PQ's youth wing. In 1990, he started working in the music industry. He discovered rocker Éric Lapointe, the biggest-selling male artist in Quebec history, managing Lapointe's career for 20 years. 

Blanchet presided over ADISQ, the Quebec industry association for music, film and television, for three years, before he was elected to represent the PQ in the provincial riding of Drummond in 2008.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left to right, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet take part in the the federal leaders French-language debate in Gatineau, Que. (Chris Wattie/Canadian Press)

The creation of the 'Goon'

As a member of the PQ caucus, Blanchet earned a nickname that he's tried hard to shake during his first campaign as a party leader: Goon. 

The name apparently came from one of his colleagues when he emerged as a forceful defender of former premier and PQ leader Pauline Marois during the challenge to Marois's leadership in 2011.

When the PQ was elected in 2012, Marois named Blanchet to her cabinet, first as party whip and then as environment minister.

Blanchet has said he and Marois were not that close, but he was loyal to her. She appointed him to her cabinet even though he had been convicted in 2010 for having been found drunk behind the wheel of his car two years earlier.

The vehicle had been parked — Blanchet has always maintained he never planned to drive. Nonetheless, he accepted the DUI "with humility," Marois said. 

Yves-François Blanchet meets the mayor of Louiseville, Que., during the Mauricie town's annual Buckwheat Festival. The Bloc leader hit every fall fair in rural Quebec he could, to drum up support for his party. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Blanchet's frequent spats with journalists during his time at the National Assembly only cemented his reputation as a man with a temper. 

He has done his best over the course of the 2019 federal election to put that reputation to rest, saying repeatedly that his defensiveness was due to the political realities at the time.

A passion for work

His partner of seven years, Nancy Déziel, told Radio-Canada that Blanchet's occasionally terse reactions spring from his passion for his work.

"It's true: he has to work on being completely in control of his emotions," she said.

It was the new, smiling Bloc leader that Canadians saw during the leaders' debates. While Scheer and Trudeau traded barbs and interrupted each other, the Bloc leader seemed almost collegial, in contrast.

Two years after the Marois government's defeat in 2014, Blanchet became the voice of sovereignist Quebecers on the popular daily Radio-Canada TV show Les Ex, which analyzes social, political and economic issues. 

On Quebecers' television screens every afternoon, Blanchet became a familiar face. In a recent interview with Radio-Canada, he said his time on Les Ex also made him more familiar with how the media works  — and helped him feel at ease in front of cameras.

"I have some good memories of the media world," he said."I'm in a comfortable space ... and now I can make the odd rascally comment."

Blanchet didn't run in the 2018 provincial election. The Parti Québécois suffered a historic defeat in that race — reduced to 10 seats, it lost official party status.

Took the risk

With the PQ in disarray and the Bloc near extinction, running for the leadership of the Bloc Québécois was a risk it appeared no serious politician was willing to take.

Blanchet said he took it on in an effort to revive the sovereignty movement. 

"Promoting Quebec's interests in Ottawa or promoting Quebec's independence in Quebec City: it's not the flavour du jour," he told Radio-Canada as he was weighing his decision to take over the Bloc. 

"But for me, it is indispensable that we not give up on ideas that are this important."

Blanchet has not talked much about separating from Canada in this campaign, except when forced to by his opponents. 

Instead, he has latched onto the Coalition Avenir Québec provincial government's brand of nationalism — and he says in Parliament, he will do what he has always done: defend Quebec's interests.

"We are people who are convinced that one day Quebec will take on the attributes of sovereignty," Blanchet said on the final day of the campaign. 

"But that's not the mandate of this election. We've been saying it for five weeks."

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