The Bloc at 20: a conversation with Gilles Duceppe

The Bloc Québécois is 20 years old this month. Gilles Duceppe, its leader since 1997, has been elected to the House of Commons five times, going back to a by-election victory in his Montréal riding in August, 1990. An article about the Bloc’s unusual role as a long-entrenched separatist party on the federal scene appears in this week’s Maclean’s. Duceppe spoke with John Geddes for the story. An edited text of the interview:

The Bloc Québécois is 20 years old this month. Gilles Duceppe, its leader since 1997, has been elected to the House of Commons five times, going back to a by-election victory in his Montréal riding in August, 1990. An article about the Bloc’s unusual role as a long-entrenched separatist party on the federal scene appears in this week’s Maclean’s. Duceppe spoke with John Geddes for the story. An edited text of the interview:

Q:  Has anything important changed in your view of Quebec and Canada in the two decades since the Bloc was formed?

A: I would say not substantially, no. When I same into politics I had the deepest respect for Canada, nothing against the English population—my grandfather was a home child. In my very first years [in Ottawa] I understood better what it means to be a country, because when they were talking about Canada—whether from the Reform, the Alliance, the Liberals, the NDP—all those people were standing up for their country. Independently of their important differences on the economic plan or the social values and so on, that’s their country. And I think this is beautiful. They’re united even if they’re divided on how that country should be run. That’s quite important. I’m telling Quebecers that if you want a sovereign Quebec, we have to unite independently of the differences on philosophical issues or economic issues or social issues.

Q: Your party wants Quebec out of Canada, and yet it’s become such a familiar part of the Canadian federal scene. Do you think the Bloc is a paradox?

A: Yes, but life is a great paradox also. And I think of the lesson we’ve learned from the American Revolution: no taxation without representation. And [without the Bloc] all the people representing Quebec in Ottawa would be federalists. So I think not only is it good for Quebecers to be represented in Ottawa, it’s also good for Canadians to know another point of view. I’m not saying we have a majority—or we’d be a sovereign country—but ours is certainly an important point of view, and getting that point of view is important in democracy, knowing not only one side of the reality but knowing the whole thing.

Q: Is it possible that the Bloc acts as a sort of a safety valve for the sovereignty movement, easing the pressure for another referendum. A sovereigntist voter might take comfort from being able to cast a ballot for the Bloc in federal elections.

A: Not at all. That voter will say, “Well, the day a referendum comes, instead of having all those Liberal and Tory MPs fighting against the sovereigntists, those guys will be with us.”  Look at the difference between 1980 and 1995, when the Bloc was there. Instead of having 75 MPs campaigning [for the No side] we had two-thirds of those elected in Ottawa on the [Yes] side. That’s the first thing.

And, historically, look at what happened in Ireland before they made their independence. The British parties were not even running candidates in Ireland against the candidate for a free Ireland. They were elected with huge majorities to Westminster, and they were facing the same kind of argumentation—“If you’re there, it’s like a safety valve.” But they succeeded. There’s a lot more democracy here than there was at that time in Ireland, but the same argument was there.

Q. You’ve said that an advantage of Bloc MPs being in Ottawa is that they gain international affairs experience.

A. We’re meeting the ambassadors regularly, we’re participating to all those foreign missions, we’re receiving the foreign missions in Ottawa. And since we’re recognized as a nation, they know pretty well what it means.

Q: You’re referring to the motion passed in the House in 2006 that recognized the Québécois as a nation.

A: Yes.

Q: Some thought Prime Minister Harper outmanoeuvred you by tabling that motion, making it impossible for you to claim that Canada denied the nationhood you claim.

A: Not at all. I think, all in all, at the end of the day, we’re winning on that because now we’re using [the House motion] to say, “Well, it has to be more than symbolic.” We can use it on the international level.

Q: Another interesting political moment was your participation in the coalition deal with the Liberals and NDP in 2008. You’d come to Ottawa hoping to help take Quebec out of Canada, and there you were intimately involved in talks aimed at creating a new Canadian government. Did it feel odd?

A: Not at all. We have to go back not to 2008 but to 2004, in a hotel in Montréal, the Delta on Maisonneuve Street. I called Stephen Harper and Jack Layton to meet me then, and we signed a letter, the three of us, we sent that letter to Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, saying that if Paul Martin was to lose a confidence vote in September, don’t call an election, call us, okay? That was signed by Harper.

Q: So you’re saying there have been two such moments, when you’ve talked to federalist parties about who should form the next Canadian government.

A. And don’t forget that we supported the first two Harper budgets, because they were good. It’s funny—when we’re supporting the Tories, the Liberals are telling the Tories, “You’re sleeping with the separatists.” And when we’re supporting the Liberals, the Tories are telling the Liberals, “You’re sleeping with the separatists.” One day I told them that it is funny because you all want to be in the bed with us but no one wants to marry us.

Q: What does that say about your relationship with the other federal parties?

A: Over these years, the only one who was able to call the other parties to meet, it was me. So I told them also that it takes a sovereigntist to make two federalists talk to each other.

Q: Doesn’t your ability to play that part on the federal scheme bring us back to the idea that maybe your longevity, your comfortable role in Canadian politics, undermines the sovereigntist cause?

A: It shows very clearly that I’ll be one of the people able to negotiate for a sovereign Quebec.

Q: Okay. How close do you think you are to sovereignty?

A: All in all, I think there’s a solid 40 per cent block of sovereigntist people in Quebec, there’s 40 per cent federalists and 20 per cent going from one pole to the other depending on the context. I think this is the situation.

Q: But it’s been that way a very long time, hasn’t it?

A: When we look that the human history, I would say that sometimes a decade isn’t worth a day, and sometimes an hour is worth many decades. The hour the Berlin wall was destroyed it was worth more than a decade, a lot of decades, but that hour would have been impossible if people hadn’t been working hard for decades. I’m telling you we’re working very hard and our hour will come.

Q: As Bloc leader, you’ve traveled quite a bit in Canada. When you meet a francophone in Northern Ontario, or New Brunswick or Manitoba, don’t they seem to you like part of the family?

A: I would say they’re among the great family, the francophonie. But they’re franco-Canadians or Acadians—they’re not Quebecers. And they’re members of, I would say, a diaspora. But having said that, we have to maintain those links and reinforce those links also, as a sovereign country, with all the francophones, and first of all the franco-Canadians and the Acadians.

Q: If you win, though, the French language is bound to retreat in Canada as a whole, isn’t it?

A: Canada’s part of the Francophonie, just like a sovereign Quebec would maintain its links within the Commonwealth. It’s important for us—it’s a sphere of influence. The Francophonie is also a sphere of influence around the world. Will Canada say, “We don’t want to participate anymore to the Francophonie”? That’d be an error, a diplomatic error, an economic error.

Q: But if there were no Quebec MPs in the House of Commons, Canada wouldn’t go on being a bilingual country the way it is now.

A: The law will still be there. Are you telling me that they will abolish that?

Q: That would be my guess.

A:  I’m pretty sure that Canada will ask to maintain its role in the Francophonie. So who will represent Canada? No more Quebecers, so they will have to use franco-Canadians and Acadians. That gives a more important role for them than they have now, because people from Quebec won’t be there anymore to represent Canada within the Francophonie.

Q:  Thank you for this conversation. I’ll tell you what, let’s do it every twenty years.

A: Well, let’s make it after Quebec has said Yes.