Tory minister Lebel explains past sovereigntist ties

Conservative cabinet minister Denis Lebel has confirmed he held a BQ membership from 1993-2001.

Stephen Harper's transport minister was a member of the Bloc Québécois for 8 years

Denis Lebel, minister of transport and the economic development minister for Quebec, says his commitment to Canada is unequivocal despite his eight-year membership in the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet has confirmed his past association with Quebec's sovereignty movement.

Transport Minister Denis Lebel, who represents the riding of Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean and also serves as the minister responsible for the Economic Development Agency for Quebec, has confirmed he was a member of the Bloc Québécois for eight years, from July 23, 1993 to April 28, 2001.

Lebel's Bloc Québécois membership resurfaced in light of last week's revelation that interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel held memberships in the Bloc as well as a provincial political party that supports sovereignty, Quebec Solidaire.

Lebel said he disclosed his past membership to the voters in his riding, and that he joined the BQ while he was active in community organizations in Roberval.

His past membership in the sovereigntist party was disclosed when he first ran for the Conservative party in a byelection in fall 2007. At the time, he also disclosed that he had donated to the Liberal party.

"I made a choice in 2007, and I am very proud of the choice that I have made," he told CBC News.

'I am a nationalist'

"I have been a Conservative since Mr. Harper recognized the Québécois nation," Lebel said in a 2007 interview with Montreal daily The Gazette. "Recognition of the Québécois nation is very important. I am a nationalist and I will always be."

The decision to recognize the Québécois as a nation was one of the first controversies of Harper's tenure as prime minister. The motion passed overwhelmingly in the House of Commons in November 2006, but it cost Harper his intergovernmental affairs minister, Michael Chong, who resigned.

Although he was a member, Lebel denies being "active" in the Bloc, although he admits to participating in partisan activities and donating a few hundred dollars to the BQ's fundraising efforts.

"I've never done activism. Never, never, never," he insisted in a statement to Radio-Canada on Friday. 

A Lebel spokesman told CBC News Minister Lebel has been transparent with his constituents about his membership with the Bloc Quebecois. Minister Lebel was never actively involved with any political party before he joined the Conservative Party. A party he joined, he says, because of Stephen Harper’s vision for the economy and the future of Canada as a whole. "I made a choice in 2007, and I am very proud of the choice that I have made."

Roberval is in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, an area well-known as a hotbed of Quebec nationalism. Former Bloc Québécois leaders Michel Gauthier and Lucien Bouchard represented the region, and it voted 65 per cent in favour of sovereignty in the 1995 referendum.

Lebel served as the mayor of Roberval from 2000 until he became a Conservative MP in 2007. He left the Bloc in 2001.

"You know how it works in our region. When you're in the middle of things in Lac-Saint-Jean and you're president of just about everything that moves, you're often called by people," Lebel's statement explains.

Lebel says part of the reason he joined the party was to have better access to Gauthier.

Alain Pelletier, a former political organizer for Gauthier in the region, confirmed Lebel never really campaigned for the party. "Mr. Lebel has encouraged rather than fought. He was not really present in the organization," he told Radio-Canada.

Not the first

Lebel is not the first cabinet minister to serve in the federal government despite belonging to a sovereigntist political party in the past.

Liberal Jean Lapierre was one of the founding members of the Bloc Québécois after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990. He did not run for re-election in 1993, and went into broadcasting. 

Prime Minister Paul Martin lured him out of political retirement to run again for the Liberals in a Montreal byelection in 2004, and he served in Martin's cabinet and as the former prime minister's Quebec lieutenant until the Liberals' defeat by Harper's Conservatives in 2006.

Lebel insists that his commitment to Canada remains unequivocal.

"The choice I made is to represent Quebec in a large united country that is Canada," his statement reads.

Magnet for criticism

Turmel has been a magnet for criticism ever since her  past memberships in sovereignty-supporting political parties came to light.

Lebel told Radio-Canada his commitment is "unequivocal," unlike his impression of Turmel's.

The interim NDP leader says she is a federalist, and the NDP has confirmed that she voted against sovereignty in Quebec's referendums.

The Prime Minister's Office referred CBC News to Lebel's office for answers as to whether the minister was ever a separatist and how he voted in the 1995 referendum. Lebel's spokesperson said she has nothing to add to what's been reported already.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper characterized Turmel's political past as "disappointing."

"I think Canadians expect that any political party that wants to govern the country be unequivocally committed to this country," Harper said. "And I think that's the minimum Canadians expect."

Turmel vs. Lebel: their sovereigntist ties

How long were they members of a sovereigntist party?

Turmel held a Bloc membership for just over four years, from December 2006 until January 2011. She became an NDP candidate shortly afterward. It's unclear when Turmel became a member of Quebec Solidaire, but it only formed as a provincial political party in November 2006. Turmel did not give up her membership in the provincial party until it became controversial last week.

Lebel was a member of the Bloc for eight years, from July 1993 until April 2001. In the summer of 1993, the Bloc was fighting its first federal election campaign under leader Lucien Bouchard. (The party became the official Opposition that fall.) Lebel was still a Bloc member when he was elected mayor of Roberval in 2000.

Why were they members of a sovereigntist party?

Turmel says she took out a Bloc membership to "support a friend": then-BQ MP Carole Lavallée. She says she agrees with some of the Bloc's policies, but not its position on national unity. When Turmel served as the head of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the national federal civil servants' union endorsed Bloc Québécois candidates. Of Quebec Solidaire, Turmel told Rosemary Barton on Power & Politics that her support for the provincial party was based on the fact that "they work on issues for Quebec families." She says Quebec Solidaire spokesperson (the party does not have a leader in the traditional sense) Françoise David is also a friend of hers.

Lebel explains his Bloc membership as part of his political and community involvement more generally in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-John region of Quebec, a nationalist stronghold. He told Radio-Canada that he wanted to get closer to then-MP Michel Gauthier, who became the leader of the Bloc after Lucien Bouchard left to become premier of Quebec in 1996.

How active and committed were they to the sovereigntist cause?

Turmel says that despite her memberships and the small donations (totalling $235) she made in support of her friend Lavallée, she was never active in the sovereignty movement per se. Her past work as a national union leader did find her on common ground with the Bloc on other social and justice issues. She maintains that she is and always has been a federalist. Turmel has disclosed that she voted against separation in both of Quebec's sovereignty referendums.

Lebel says that despite his membership and small donations (a few hundred dollars), he never actively campaigned for the Bloc, although he did attend Bloc events and participated in partisan activities. A party organizer for the Bloc during that time period supports his claim not to have been a party activist or strong campaigner. Lebel told reporters in 2007 that he is a Quebec nationalist. Lebel has not disclosed how he voted in Quebec's sovereignty referendums.