Michel Gauthier only ran for Parliament because another candidate had been accused of résumé-padding, but he would become a prominent figure in the Quebec sovereignty movement in the 1990s, even succeeding Lucien Bouchard as the head of the Bloc Québécois.
Mr. Gauthier more recently joined the federalist ranks, becoming a member of the federal Conservatives; but he had to drop plans to help his new party in the last election after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died of the disease Saturday. He was 70.
His shifting political affiliations were by no means unique among Quebeckers, but his high-profile credentials led to condolences on the weekend from both Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet. Acting Parti Québécois leader Pascal Bérubé also paid tribute, remembering Mr. Gauthier as “a talented orator and a fiery parliamentarian.”
During one of the most heated periods in recent Canadian history, in the run-up to the 1995 referendum when Quebec nearly voted to leave the country, Mr. Gauthier was a skilled performer for the Bloc, tag-teaming with Mr. Bouchard in criticizing federalism daily during the House of Commons’ Question Period.
The Bloc was in an unprecedented position as a separatist group that had also gained enough seats to become the Official Opposition. This status gave Mr. Bouchard’s caucus the research budget and visibility to use Canada’s 35th Parliament to attack the federal system and the government of Jean Chrétien.
The star of Mr. Bouchard’s co-ordinated campaign with the provincial PQ was Mr. Gauthier, who usually asked the second set of questions in the House after the party leader. While most members of the caucus were political rookies who had to stick to reading prewritten queries, Mr. Gauthier had free rein as he indignantly jabbed his index finger at the government benches while berating cabinet ministers.
He had honed his skills at the provincial level while on the opposition benches for the PQ where, as energy critic, he had been pitted against a seasoned debater, the Liberal premier Robert Bourassa. “I came here with two things,” Mr. Gauthier said in 1994 of his move to Ottawa. “One, I knew how a legislature works, how to prepare for Question Period. Two, I knew we could do all kinds of political things, but always within the rules of the institutions.”
Mr. Gauthier was a second-generation politician, but a reluctant public figure who needed some nudging at each of the pivotal points of his career: first to enter provincial politics, second to run federally and finally, to become Bloc leader.
He was born in Quebec City on Feb. 18, 1950, one of the children of Joseph-Georges Tremblay, a motor engine technician, and Cécile Archambault, a homemaker.
Young Michel grew up in Chambord, a small town near Roberval, in the Lac Saint-Jean area, a remote, nationalist region north of Quebec City.
His father was the town mayor from 1959 to 1966, and also a member of the provincial legislature from 1962 to 1970 for the Union Nationale, a now-defunct conservative party. His father had been adopted by a merchant named Joseph Gauthier and officially changed the family name to Gauthier in 1968.
By that time, Michel was studying for a teaching certificate. He later said he was not tempted to follow in his father’s footsteps, seeing the demands that political life made on the family. Instead, Mr. Gauthier taught grade school, then became a school-board administrator. He was also head of the local chamber of commerce.
He joined the PQ because it mirrored his nationalist views. He declined when he was asked to run in the 1976 provincial election, but eventually agreed to be a candidate and was elected twice, in 1981 and 1985. He was parliamentary secretary to provincial finance minister Jacques Parizeau, during which time he became friends with Mr. Bouchard, who was representing the government in public-sector contract talks.
After a stint on the opposition benches, he returned to life as a school-board manager. In the fall of 1993, he agreed to help Mr. Bouchard find candidates for the fledgling Bloc, which was preparing for its first federal election.
In the local riding of Roberval, a businessman who won the nomination was disqualified on allegations that he falsely claimed to have a political-science degree. It took two telephone calls from Mr. Bouchard to convince Mr. Gauthier to replace the businessman on the ballot.
Following the Bloc’s breakthrough win of 54 seats, Mr. Gauthier, as one of the few caucus members with parliamentary experience, was appointed the party’s House leader. When Mr. Bouchard left Ottawa to become PQ Leader and Quebec Premier after the 1995 referendum, the favourite to replace him was the Bloc’s first elected MP, Gilles Duceppe. However, Mr. Duceppe was opposed by a faction of MPs who resented his left-wing views and his role as party whip and enforcer of caucus discipline. Mr. Gauthier, who had not initially considered a bid for the leadership, was convinced to run as a unity candidate.
In February, 1996, he became the Bloc’s second leader. Not benefiting from Mr. Bouchard’s charisma or authority, Mr. Gauthier lasted little more than a year at the head of the party. He later complained that the party had lost valuable political aides, who followed Mr. Bouchard to Quebec City, and that he was undermined within the caucus.
He told a weekly newspaper in his riding that he knew his leadership was doomed when he saw confidential caucus debates were being leaked to the media. He stepped down in March, 1997, but remained another decade in his job as House leader.
After he retired from politics in 2007, he dabbled in journalism, hosting a television public-affairs show and writing a newspaper column. In May, 2018, he announced that he was no longer a sovereigntist, saying it was clear there was no prospect for another referendum.
He said that the Conservative Party of Canada came closest to his nationalist views and signed his membership papers in front of TV cameras. He was going to help Conservative candidates in Quebec during last fall’s election, but had to cancel those plans after he was diagnosed with cancer the previous spring.
He leaves his spouse, Anne Allard; his children from a previous marriage, Alexandre and Isabelle; and his stepdaughters, Natacha and Katia.
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