INGRID PERITZ in Longueuil, Que. DANIEL LEBLANC in Ottawa
Two former Bloc Québécois MPs who fought for the separatist side in the 1995 referendum became the Canadian Alliance's first declared candidates in Quebec yesterday.
In a move that could raise hackles within the Alliance's western base, former Bloquistes Nic Leblanc and Richard Bélisle announced they would seek a seat for Canada's newest conservative party in the next federal election.
The two recruits both painted themselves as disillusioned separatists who have renewed their federalist faith and now believe in the Alliance's gospel of lower taxes and greater autonomy for the provinces.
"The great majority of Quebeckers want more autonomy. That's what the Alliance is offering. That's why I'm here," Mr. Leblanc said.
"The Alliance is proposing a deep decentralization that will give Quebeckers power from certain departments with access to more financial resources."
The candidacies mark the first significant breakthrough for the Alliance in Quebec, where support has inched up since the arrival of leader Stockwell Day but has never broken the 10-per-cent mark. A poll released yesterday by Léger & Léger showed the Alliance gaining the support of only 5.4 per cent of Quebeckers.
Mr. Day, who travelled to Montreal's South Shore for yesterday's announcement, tried to play down the perception that the Alliance was cozying up to the Bloc Québécois. He has already taken heat for refusing to rule out a postelection Bloc-Alliance partnership.
"I think our critics will try and say it's a coalition with the Bloc," Mr. Day said in an interview. "But I have been very clear: I have never sought a political coalition with the Bloc, nor will I. These are people who are leaving the Bloc to join the Alliance."
Neither of the new Alliance conscripts would be considered star candidates in Quebec, though the 58-year-old Mr. Leblanc has name recognition in the province. A businessman first elected as a Tory in 1984, Mr. Leblanc bolted from the party in 1990 over the failure of Meech Lake and became a founding member of the Bloc Québécois.
He became a prominent member of the Bloc, but quit in 1997 to sit as an independent after Gilles Duceppe was elected party chief. Mr. Leblanc said he opposed Mr. Duceppe's rigid party discipline and couldn't work with a former Marxist as leader.
Mr. Bélisle, 54, the lesser-known of the two candidates, sat for a single term as a Bloc MP from 1993 to 1997. A former town councillor, he was criticized for being absent from his South Shore riding and lost to a Liberal.
Both are the kind of Quebec nationalist that Mr. Day is trying to court in the province: They say they oppose the Liberals' centralized policies but see the sovereignty issue as dormant and passé.
Mr. Day has tried to woo nationalists by recalling that he supported the Meech Lake accord. But he has also insisted that the only kind of separatist he would accept in his party is one who is a convert to federalism.
Mr. Bélisle said he left the separatist fold after listening to his two grown daughters say they were turned off by constitutional squabbling.
"They want to be like the rest of Canada, the rest of North America. They want to have a career, they want to have a family," Mr. Bélisle said, adding that Ottawa-bashing is falling out of favour. "[It used to be that]if it's raining outside, it's because of Ottawa. When it's cold outside, it's because of Ottawa. When we have a bad summer, it's because of Ottawa.
"I'm not interested in that kind of thing any more," Mr. Bélisle said. "It's like a religion."
Mr. Leblanc said the Canadian Alliance, with its emphasis on free votes in the Commons, would give Alliance MPs in Quebec the freedom to defend Quebeckers' interests in Ottawa.
Both also said the Canadian Alliance's message of lower taxes would resonate among Quebeckers, who pay among the highest income taxes in North America.
"The Liberals want to keep all your taxes in Ottawa. The Bloc Québécois wants to send them completely to Quebec City," Mr. Bélisle said. "We in the Alliance simply want to put your tax money in your pockets."
The Liberals, Bloc and Tories all tried to minimize the importance of the defections to the Alliance in Quebec.
Nick Discepola, a Montreal-area Liberal MP, accused Mr. Day of following in the footsteps of former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney with his coalition between western conservatives and Quebec separatists. Mr. Discepola said that Mr. Day seemed bent on "winning at any price."
"How can you accept in your party people who wanted to break up your country?" he asked.
Mr. Discepola said it is possible for some former separatists to become federalists, but in the case of Mr. Leblanc and Mr. Bélisle, he said it sounded a lot more like opportunism than a real conversion. Bloc MP Claude Bachand called Mr. Leblanc and Mr. Bélisle's move to the Alliance a "suicide mission."
Mr. Bachand acknowledged that Quebeckers do not want a referendum in the near future. "In the meantime, however, we are the best party when it comes to defending the interests of Quebeckers," Mr. Bachand said.
Mr. Bachand said that Quebeckers will never forgive the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance for its ads, which attacked Quebec politicians in the last election, and for its support this year of Bill C-20, which set the federal government's rules for a future referendum.
Conservative MP Rick Borotsik said he suspects that Mr. Leblanc and Mr. Bélisle have a hidden agenda: promoting sovereignty within the Alliance.
The two former Bloc MPs might end up irritating other Alliance members, which could cause the Alliance members to speak out against Quebec and fuel separatist feelings in Quebec, Mr. Borotsik said.
"An Alliance victory would be a winning condition in the eyes of the Bloc, but not for the average Canadian," he said.