For a brief time, between when Gilles Duceppe was the interim leader of the Bloc Quebecois, and before he became the permanent leader of the party for a decade and a half, there was Michel Gauthier, who led the party and the Official Opposition for just over a year.
Gauthier was born in Quebec City on Feb. 18, 1950, where his father worked as a motor engine technician.
From 1970 to 1975, Gauthier worked as a school teacher, and then an educational advisor from 1976 to 1979, and a director of education services from 1979 to 1981.
It was in 1981 that Gauthier ventured into politics for the first time, when he was elected as a member of the National Assembly of Quebec for the Parti Quebecois. From 1983 to 1985, he would serve as the parliamentary secretary to the finance minister, future Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, and would be re-elected in 1985. As with most separatists during that time, Gauthier would cite Rene Levesque as his main political influence.
He would serve until Dec. 22, 1988, to become the director general of a school board.
His time away from politics would not be long, and he would be part of the new wave of Bloc Quebecois who were elected to the House of Commons in 1993, making the party the Official Opposition. His path to the House of Commons almost didn’t happen. The previous person who was supposed to run in his riding listed having a Laval University bachelor’s degree on his resume, which was not the case. Bouchard made the decision to remove him from the party and Gauthier was put in his place.
During his time in the House of Commons, Gauthier was known for being serious, but well-liked. Stephen Harper, then the intergovernmental affairs critic for the Reform Party, would state quote:
“He is much less intense than Bouchard. I have always found him to be very reasonable.”
Gauthier would plot the party’s strategy during the daily Commons question period and would coach new Bloc MPs on their brief minutes speaking in Parliament.
When he was elected to the House of Commons, Gauthier was not well-known in the party, so it came as a surprise that after the resignation of Lucien Bouchard in 1996, Gauthier decided to run for the leadership of the party in the Bloc Quebecois leadership election.
He would state quote:
“Those who know me know that I am not the type to run a branch office.”
In the first ballot, Gauthier won the leadership of the party with 67.1 per cent of the vote over his only challenger, Francine Lalonde.
In his victory speech, Gauthier would state quote:
Speaking in English on a public platform for the first time, Gauthier would state quote:
“Imagine new relations between Quebec and Canada where constitutional discussions would no longer be necessary. This new partnership will address the real issues such as the economy, social challenges and commercial exchanges built on common interests and mutual understanding.”
Many felt that since the vote was done by members of the directorate of the party, rather than all the members, Gauthier was not a legitimate leader. Of the 100,000 members of the party, only 158 were eligible to vote in the leadership convention. Gauthier had been pressed to run for leadership to avoid a divisive leadership fight after Bouchard left the party. He would be backed by 35 of 53 Bloc MPs.
For Gauthier, taking over leadership was no easy task as he was forced to be in the shadow of Bouchard. He would state quote:
“I don’t want to put on Lucien Bouchard’s boots. I am going to put on my own and will march in the same direction.”
Gauthier would state he would likely live at the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition, something his predecessor Bouchard did not do.
Due to his lack of profile in the party, the opposition parties called him the faceless leader of the opposition. Outside of Quebec, and even in the province itself, Gauthier was politically unknown. In a poll done in 1996, it was found that more people in Quebec knew who Preston Manning was, than knew of Gauthier. Hurting his ability to be better known was his limited grasp of English.
Gauthier would state that he wanted to learn English, stating quote:
“Learning English is important because I want to demonstrate my respect for the rest of Canadians.”
As well, due to his conservative views, and lack of what many felt was charisma compared to Bouchard, Gauthier was unpopular within the party itself.
With a revolt brewing within the party, Gauthier made the decision to resign as party leader in March of 1997, to be replaced by Gilles Duceppe.
Allan Fotheringham would write for Maclean’s, quote:
“The separatists have a problem. They have only one god. God is named Lucien Bouchard and all beneath pale before his brilliant sheen. Gauthier, a decent man, never had a hope.”
Jean Chretien, the prime minister at the time, stated of Gauthier quote:
“He did his job quite well.”
Others, such as Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, would criticize the Bloc over the resignation, stating quote:
“The separatists’ option is not flying right now in Quebec. I think the fact that Mr. Gauthier only lasted a gestation period says something about the fragility of this party.”
Gauthier seemed to be happy with his decision, stating the day after he announced his resignation quote:
“I feel completely at ease with the decision I’ve made. I think its what I had to do. I’m deeply convinced of that. I think I had some problems with my leadership, and its better for the Bloc to solve this problem.”
From 1997 to 2007, he served as both the chief campaign organizer of the party and the Bloc Quebecois House Leader.
Gauthier would continue to serve in the party, all the way up to 2007 when he announced that due to health issues after surgery, he would not be running in the next election. He would cite that surgery the previous summer had left him with a painful back problem that made the 14-hour-long trips back and forth very difficult.
Gauthier stated that he would be interested in looking at a career in the media, stating to reporters’ quote:
After resigning, Gauthier became the host of his own news show, which began airing in Quebec in September of 2007.
Many were shocked, based on his previous separatist views, when on May 12, 2018, Gauthier joined the Conservative Party of Canada and renounced his sovereigntist views, while stating he remained a Quebec nationalist. During the 2019 federal election, Gauthier helped organize the party’s Quebec efforts. Asked why he was supporting the Conservative Party, Gauthier stated that the Bloc Quebecois had no future. At the time, the party had been dealt two serious blows in the 2011 and 2015 elections, when the party won four and 10 seats, far below its highs in the 1990s and early 2000s. Many considered the party near extinction before its bounce back in the 2019 and 2021 elections.
Just over two years later, on May 30, 2020, Gauthier died from lung cancer after suffering for several years with the illness.
Gilles Duceppe, would say of Gauthier, quote:
“I spoke to him last week; he knew he didn’t have a lot of time left because of his illness. We spoke about life and politics, there were moments that weren’t easy. He was a go-getter; it is sad to lose him so soon. I had great moments by his side. Beyond the differences we could have, we wanted, both of us, that Quebec move forward.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would state quote:
“For decades, Michel Gauthier was a passionate advocate and fierce champion for the people of Quebec. My thoughts are with his family, friends and former colleagues as they mourn his passing.”
Information from Global News, CBC, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, The Windsor Star, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, National Post