On Sunday, Daniel Paillé became the new leader of the Bloc Québécois. If you missed the accent on his last name, you might think that Daniel Paille, the 27-year-old Boston Bruins left-winger from Welland, Ont., had morphed into a sovereigntist. (It’s been a strange year in Canadian politics, but not that strange.) Mr. Paillé, a 61-year-old former Bloc MP and Parti Québécois cabinet minister, was seen as a safe choice, but the future of the Bloc is anything but safe.
Recruited in 2009 as an economic adviser for the Bloc, Mr. Paillé was touted as a potential successor to Gilles Duceppe even before winning a by-election in Hochelaga and becoming the party’s finance critic. His spot on the political spectrum also reflects the variety of shades the Bloc used to represent; he isn’t as far left economically as Mr. Duceppe, but he’s every bit as committed to independence.
Mr. Paillé cut his teeth in politics as an adviser to Jacques Parizeau, who was then minister of finance in René Lévesque’s first government. After several years at the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Mr. Paillé returned to politics as Mr. Parizeau’s industry minister in 1994, then left again after the 1995 referendum defeat.
Mr. Paillé’s opponents in the leadership race – Maria Mourani and Jean-François Fortin – didn’t have his experience, but they both have something he doesn’t: a seat in the House of Commons. Like most of the former Bloc MPs, Mr. Paillé lost to an NDP unknown.
But he’s in no rush to return to Parliament. His main task is to mobilize the base, and rebuild the party from the bottom up. It’s a mighty challenge for any leader, but especially so for Mr. Paillé, who came to politics from the top – first under Mr. Parizeau’s mentorship, then as a star recruit under Mr. Duceppe. Some suggest he’s the kind of politician that led to the Bloc’s unravelling because of its disconnect with the regions and its Montreal-centric reputation.
His leadership victory reflects the Bloc’s anemic state. The party has lost a third of its card-carrying members since its electoral debacle in May and, of those remaining, less than half bothered to vote in the leadership race.
Without official party standing, the Bloc has but a whimper of a voice in Ottawa, and few resources to remake itself as a contender in the next federal election. Mr. Duceppe, still smarting from his rejection at the hands of Quebec voters, continues to insist that the Bloc’s main challenge is to show Quebeckers just how ineffectual and nonsensical the NDP is for Quebec’s interests in Ottawa. Mr. Paillé, on the other hand, tends to see Stephen Harper as his target: the “pyromaniac” who set fire to the gun registry; the “Reformer” whose values are completely at odds with Quebeckers. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Paillé targeted an even more clear and present danger: the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, led by another former Péquiste, François Legault.
Mr. Paillé is no lapdog of the current PQ leader, Pauline Marois, and sounds much more militant on the sovereignty option than she does. He realizes the Bloc’s future is now linked to the fate of the sovereignty movement. The Bloc was born in 1990, in the wake of the Meech Lake rejection and the highest ever support for sovereignty in opinion polls. But if Quebeckers reject the PQ in the next provincial election, then the space for a party whose raison d’être in Ottawa is to prepare the path for a sovereign Quebec will be gone. Sovereignty could remain as a political force in Quebec, but its current expression on the federal scene may well become obsolete.
Antonia Maioni is a professor of political science at McGill University.