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Bloc's new Leader puts a positive spin on some grim numbers

Daniel Paille, left, smiles after being elected as new leader of the Bloc Quebecois at a ceremony in Montreal on Dec. 11, 2011 as former leader Gilles Duceppe, right, shakes hands with Jean-Francois Forting, who also ran for the leadership.

Graham Hughes/CP/Graham Hughes/CP

Daniel Paillé, the new leader of the Bloc Québécois, will need all the skills and experience developed over more than 30 years in both the private and public sector to breathe new life into the moribund separatist party.

Mr. Paillé, 61, was elected Sunday with less than 40 per cent of party members bothering to vote, a dismal participation rate that indicates the magnitude of the challenge he faces rebuilding a party that was not so long ago a formidable political force.

The Bloc came close to being obliterated in the May federal election, going from 47 seats in Quebec to four as the NDP under the charismatic Jack Layton swept the province in an orange tide.

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The Bloc has been in soul-searching mode and facing down an existential crisis ever since long-time leader Gilles Duceppe quit on the disastrous election night after losing his own Montreal riding to an NDP candidate.

The leadership race pitting Mr. Paillé against two other candidates – Bloc MPs Jean-François Fortin and Maria Mourani – failed to ignite much interest among either the public at large or party sympathizers.

But Mr. Paillé tried to put a positive spin on events.

"14,000 [Bloc members]decided to vote. I'm starting with 14,000. I'm looking ahead," he said at a news conference Sunday, adding he believes the NDP is already starting to fade as a force in Quebec.

The former Parti Québécois industry minister under premier Jacques Parizeau in the 1990s says he's in no hurry to win a seat in the House of Commons and will work tirelessly over the coming months to win over Quebeckers to the sovereigntist option.

He also came out swinging hard against the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.

"Stephen Harper is a pyromaniac preparing to set fire to the gun registry, an insult to Québécois values," he said in his victory speech at a downtown Montreal hotel.

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Under the Harper government, Canada is being rebuilt in the image of the Reform Party, he said, in reference to the Western-based precursor to the Conservative Party.

"Ever since May 2, we are not the only ones – we sovereigntists – to not see ourselves reflected in this Canada of the Reform Party," he said.

Mr. Paillé has had his brushes with controversy in the past.

In 1994, on the eve of a provincial election call, the then-PQ candidate warned some Bay Street brokerage firms that they would be wise – if they wanted to continue getting Quebec government business – to steer clear of suggesting that uncertainty over Quebec's future was driving up interest rates.

"We could be in power in three months and we would be the ones writing the cheques," he was quoted in a local newspaper as telling Wood Gundy Inc. "You can't just say anything in life."

In 1995, as industry minister, he had to publicly apologize for using paper with his department's letterhead to write a personal letter to the mayor of Montreal requesting that the city block the opening of a daycare centre near his home.

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Trained as an economist, Mr. Paillé was most recently a commentator for the private TVA television network and before that a guest professor in the finance department of the École des Hautes Études Commerciales in Montreal.

He was elected as a Bloc candidate in a 2009 by-election but lost the seat this past spring.

A former senior vice-president at Quebecor Inc. and executive vice-president at giant pension fund manager Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Mr. Paillé was hired by the Tories in 2007 as an independent investigator to look into public-opinion-polling contracts handed out by the previous Liberal government.

His conclusion was that an inquiry was not needed and he also accused the Conservative government of spending outrageous amounts of money on polls.

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