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After Lucien Bouchard left the Bloc Quebecois to lead Quebec as the premier of the province in 1997, the leadership of the party fell to a new man, Gilles Duceppe. With assuming the leadership of the party, Duceppe would also become the Leader of the Official Opposition, albeit somewhat briefly.

While his time as Leader of the Official Opposition was short, Duceppe would lead the Bloc Quebecois longer than anyone else and he would spend over two decades in Parliament, becoming an elder statesman of Quebec federal politics.

Today, I am looking at his life and career.

Gilles Duceppe was born on July 22, 1947 in Montreal to Helene and Jean Duceppe. His father, Jean, was a well-known stage and television actor who performed in 34 different plays between 1941 and 1947. He would also host several radio shows and numerous television shows during his career. A supporter of Quebec independence, his politics would have an impact on his son, influencing his decisions for decades to come.

Interestingly, the material grandfather of Duceppe was John Rowley, a Briton by birth, with Irish ancestry, who was a home child and orphan that was sent to Canada in the 19th century. As Duceppe would say years later of his English ancestry, quote:

“I’m a bloke who turned Bloc.”

As a young man, Duceppe would often complain about preferential treatment given to Anglophone students. Duceppe would say later in life that he complained to a Grade 6 teacher about this and was slapped. Duceppe would say that he slapped the teacher back.

After completing high school, Duceppe would study political science at the Universite de Montreal but did not finish his studies. It was around this time that he started to find his political path. He would be inspired to become a sovereigntist at the age of 20 by Rene Levesque and the Parti Quebecois.

In November 1970, Duceppe would be quoted in the newspaper regarding the use of the War Measures Act. The article would state quote:

“Gilles Duceppe, a political science student at the University of Montreal who has taken a year out of school to work on a province wide student magazine, Le Quartier Latin, says the war measures and troops have radicalized members of the Parti Quebecois.”

Duceppe would also advocate for communism and was even a member of the Workers’ Communist Party of Canada. He would say years later he was looking for absolute answers but that his three-year membership in the organization was a mistake.

As a young man, Duceppe would work as a hospital orderly but was fired for being belligerent. He then became a trade union organizer and in 1972 he launched into community and union settings, serving as a moderator of the citizen’s committee of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, followed by representing Royal Victoria Hospital employees in 1977.  

While he was a sovereigntist, he would spoil his 1980 Quebec independence ballot arguing that the Quebecois should instead focus on staying united to fight capitalism.

By the mid-1980s, Duceppe was working as an advisor to the Confederation of Trade Unions, representing thousands of workers in hotels and restaurants.

In 1990, Duceppe was elected to the House of Commons in a by-election in Laurier-Sainte-Marie, a riding he would hold continuously in every subsequent election from 1993 to 2008. In his first election, Duceppe defeated his Liberal challenger by 11,000 votes.

Deborah Gray, the lone Reform MP, would state quote:

“You’ve got to question their motives”

Upon his election win, Duceppe would state quote:

“We’ve won this game and the season is just beginning.”

He would add of his win quote:

“Quebec has finally understood that English will never say yes to any demand from Quebec. Sovereignty is the only possible option for Quebec and the riding.”

Duceppe would state that his oath of allegiance to the Queen was a simple technicality, and that his true national allegiance belonged to the people and culture of Quebec. Duceppe would be criticized over the matter, and critics would state that he disrespected the honour and dignity of the House.

At this time, the Bloc Quebecois had been created and while Duceppe supported them, he sat as an independent because the Bloc had not registered as a political party yet. Bouchard had high praise for the newest member of the House of Commons, stating quote:

“He will devote himself unstintingly to the forging of a sovereign Quebec.”

Duceppe would serve as a member of Mouvement Quebec in 1991 and 1992, which was an organization dedicated to preserving the French language in Canada. As a member of the Bloc Quebecois, he was the party speaker for Indian Affairs, Multiculturalism, National Defence, Veterans Affairs, Labour, Employment, Immigration and the Status of Women.

In 1991, when Prince Charles and Princess Diana toured Canada, the prince spoke for unity. Duceppe would respond to this, stating in the House of Commons quote:

“I find it unacceptable that Quebecers have to foot the bill for this visit, especially after the statement made by the Prince of Wales on the Quebec question. He would be better advised to look after the problems in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.”

On Feb. 13, 1992, Duceppe had harsh words for Canada if Quebec were to separate, stating quote:

“Tell Western farmers they will have to eat all their beef or watch the carcasses rot, instead of selling them to Quebec, or 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 anymore cars to those poor Quebecers.”

In 1993, Duceppe suddenly found himself in the party that made up the Official Opposition with the Bloc nearly sweeping all the ridings in Quebec, shooting the party up from a minor party to the second most important party in the House of Commons. As the prospects of the Bloc rose, so too did the career prospects of Duceppe.

He was soon seen as a natural leader of the Bloc Quebecois. Duceppe would tell Parliament on Jan. 27, 1994, quote:

“Quebec has only one option left, sovereignty and the future of Montreal is contingent upon that choice.”

During the 1995 Quebec Referendum, Duceppe, the party whip, was a vocal supporter and campaigner for the Yes side.

Duceppe would state in the leadup to the vote, quote:

“The lack of movement and resignation of federalists has too long hampered the economic, cultural and social development of the Quebec people.”

After the referendum failed, Duceppe would state, quote:

“Newfoundland held more than one referendum before joining Canada. In that case, it was okay but in Quebec’s case, it’s a double standard as usual.”

In 1996, Lucien Bouchard stepped down as Bloc leader to become the premier of Quebec. Duceppe was chosen as the interim leader of the party, serving only briefly before Michel Gauthier was chosen as the new leader of the party. He was eventually forced out as leader in 1997, and Duceppe won the leadership contest to become the leader of the Bloc Quebecois and the Leader of the Opposition. In the 1997 Leadership Convention, Duceppe won 43.91 per cent of the vote on the first ballot, and then won the party leadership on the second ballot with 52.77 per cent.

Duceppe would go through his first election as the leader of the party in 1997. The election campaign was tough for Duceppe, who was photographed wearing a hairnet at a cheese factory, which was widely mocked in Quebec for the image it projected of him. When the June 2, 1997 election came about, the Bloc Quebecois fell from Official Opposition status to third party status, losing six seats in the process to finish with 44.

In the 2000 election, the party once again lost more support, falling to 38 seats and many began to criticize Duceppe, stating he was not effective on the campaign but with no serious challenger to his leadership, he remained the leader of the party.

Jean Chretien would step down as the leader of the Liberal Party in 2003, and the Liberals were beset by the Sponsorship Scandal, which saw the misuse and misdirection of public funds intended for government advertising in Quebec. In the 2004 election, Duceppe rebounded heavily by attacking the Liberals, and chastising the other leaders for their broken promises. In the leadership debates, many considered Duceppe, both in the English and French debates, as the best speaker. As result of this, the Bloc won 54 seats, nearly equaling their high point of 1993, while the Liberals fell to a minority government under Paul Martin.

At this point, Duceppe was the longest serving leader of a major party in Canada at the time, and many expected Duceppe to follow Bouchard to become the premier of Quebec and the leader of the Parti Quebecois. On June 13, 2005, Duceppe stated he would not seek the leadership of the provincial party.

On Nov. 28, 2005, Duceppe helped to bring down the minority government of Paul Martin, resulting in an election in early 2006. Many felt that Duceppe had come into his own as leader. Political scientist Guy Lachapelle would state quote:

“I think people respect him more than they did 15 years ago.”

By this point, Duceppe was the most experienced federal leader, who had more self-confidence in the role. One political scientist would say at the time, quote:

“When you compare his performance with the elections of 1997 or 2000, you get the sense of a leader who has a better grasp of the political game. He was very skillful in the debate and has developed a political flair that he did not have a few years ago.”

Duceppe and the Bloc would do well in that election, finishing with 51 seats, but they only had 43 per cent of the popular vote in the province, showing a downward trend for the party under Duceppe.

For the next three years, Duceppe and the Bloc would be a powerful player in the minority government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

During this time, Duceppe hoped to boost the power of the Bloc, stating quote:

“I say to all the Uncle Toms from Quebec that are in Ottawa who say to us if you want to enforce French, do it in Quebec. It is time for them to act if they are serious about recognizing Quebec as a nation.”

Duceppe would go through another election in 2008, and the Bloc fell to 49 seats with only 38 per cent of the popular vote in the province, their lowest since 1997. This election would be the last election win for Duceppe in his own riding, as a new wave was coming.

The 2011 election would be the end of the political career for Duceppe. The Bloc had demanded $5 billion from the Conservatives for compensation from the 1998 North American Ice Storm and $175 million for a new hockey arena to bring back the Quebec Nordiques, which the government refused, leading the Bloc to support the Liberals and NDP in bringing down the government after it was found in Contempt of Parliament.

In the election, Duceppe would argue that the Bloc was the only party that could prevent a Conservative majority. He would state quote:

“The risk that Stephen Harper is a majority is very real.”

In the end, the Bloc would not be crushed by the Conservatives, but by a party no one saw coming.

In the 2011 election, the Bloc lost 43 seats, including most of the seats it held since 1993. The party was left with only four seats as the NDP and its Orange Wave surged through Quebec winning 58 seats to become the Official Opposition. Previously, the NDP had only one seat in the province. Duceppe would lose his own seat to his NDP challenger by over 5,000 votes.

With the crushing loss, Duceppe soon announced his resignation as the leader of the party but stated he would not rest until Quebec became its own country.

Duceppe would state quote:

“The voters have spoken. Democracy has spoken. I accept the choice.”

He would add a parting shot at Jack Layton and his Orange Wave of NDP in Quebec.

“Mr. Layton has promised a lot. Quebecers now have the right to expect results, to have full recognition of the Quebec nation.”

After his resignation, allegations came out in 2012 that stated Duceppe used funds designed for his parliamentary office to pay the Bloc Quebecois’ general manager over the course of seven years. Duceppe denied any wrongdoing but the House of Commons Board of Internal Economy found he had misused the funds but no disciplinary action was taken. It was also found that the spouse of his chief of staff had been given parliamentary resources to produce a book commemorating the 20 years of the Bloc in Ottawa.

For the next several years, Duceppe worked as a political analyst but in an unexpected turn of events that no one saw coming, Duceppe returned to lead the Bloc Quebecois into the 2015 election after his successor, Mario Beaulieu, resigned as leader but remained party president.

Duceppe would state quote:

“We are better represented when we’re represented by people thinking like us. Democratically elected and speaking the way we want them to speak, defending the interests which are our interests.”

Some would criticize Duceppe coming back as leader, including Conservative MP Jason Kenney who stated quote:

“He wants to play the golden oldies when Quebecers want to concentrate on their prosperity.”

On Aug. 1, 2015, Duceppe announced he would run in his original riding in the upcoming election.

During the election, Duceppe would state quote:

 “It is necessary for Quebecers to regain their voice in Ottawa. Our representatives have to defend your interests. It is time to put Quebec back in power with all its strength and all its pride.”

In the Oct. 19, 2015 election, the Bloc Quebecois rose to 10 seats, regaining official party status, but Duceppe lost in his own riding once again and he would resign as leader only days later.

In the 2019 election, Duceppe would see his son, Alexis, be elected to the House of Commons for the first time in the Lac-Saint-Jean riding as a member of the Bloc Quebecois, meaning that a member of the Duceppe family has been in the House of Commons almost continuously from 1990, with the exception of the 2011 to 2019 gap.

Tragedy would strike that year for Duceppe when his mother died after being trapped outside her senior living residence in the bitter cold. He would state, quote:

“We were sad and we are still very sad. This is just unacceptable.”

She had been accidently locked outside for six hours in -35 degree Celsius weather. Her access card would not let her back in the building and no one noticed her absence.

Duceppe and his family would launch a $1.25 million lawsuit against the residence. He would state quote:

“Human beings are human beings. It is not a bank account. When you are paying a lot, you hope at least when they advertise, they render those services and its not the case.”

*Video for this, Global News*

Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Global News, CBC, The Windsor Star, Montreal Gazette, Regina Leader-Post, The Vancouver Sun,

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