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Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe gets his face wiped by his wife Yolande Brunelle as he enters to speak to supporters Monday, May 2, 2011 in Montreal. Duceppe announced his resignation.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe has resigned, leaving his party on its deathbed as Quebeckers clearly rejected the pro-sovereignty message that he tried to hammer home in the final week of a stunning campaign in Quebec.

"I'm leaving, but others will follow, until Quebec becomes a country," Mr. Duceppe told party faithful in a short speech at a sombre election night rally in Montreal on Monday night.

Mr. Duceppe was accompanied by his wife and two children as he spoke, encouraged by a crowd of supporters who chanted his name, applauded and thanked him for his two decades in politics.

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While some supporters urged him to stay on, Mr. Duceppe said he was taking responsibility for the Bloc's historic defeat, which he attributed to a "profound thirst for change."

"Those who supported the NDP wanted to give a last chance to a federalist party," he said, adding that Quebeckers also rejected the Conservative and Liberal parties. "Quebeckers now have the right to expect results, changes, a concrete recognition of the Québécois nation."

Mr. Duceppe continued promoting sovereignty in his speech, passing the baton to Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois in Quebec City, and whomever succeeds him atop the Bloc in Ottawa.

"Every nation finds the strength to fully assert itself, which means, in Quebec's case, having a free country," he said.

As the election results came in at the party's headquarters in Montreal, optimism quickly gave way to concern and, finally, stunned silence and tears, until Mr. Duceppe arrived to give his final speech.

Quebeckers rejected the Conservative government in this election, but choose the NDP instead of the Bloc to voice their opposition, leaving the sovereigntist party with a rump in Parliament.

Mr. Duceppe lost in his own riding, which he won in a by-election in 1990, and which was deemed an impenetrable Bloc fortress just two weeks ago. The party held 47 seats at dissolution, most of which had been in the party's hands since the 1993 general election after the death of the Meech Lake and the Charlottetown constitutional accords.

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The Bloc was the official opposition at the time, but it now will no longer even have party status in the House of Commons.

Founded by former Conservative cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard and a group of disenchanted Liberal and Conservative MPs two decades ago, the Bloc was designed to serve as the second edge of the sovereignty movement in Ottawa.

Mr. Bouchard played a key role in the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, which was won by the "No" camp. He moved to Quebec City to become PQ leader and premier in 1996, with Mr. Duceppe becoming Bloc leader in 1997.

The Bloc started losing traction in Quebec in the late 1990s, but it got a new lease on life with the sponsorship scandal in 2004, and Conservative cuts to cultural programs in 2008.

On Monday, however, the NDP took over seats throughout Quebec, leaving the Bloc winning or leading in just four ridings as Mr. Duceppe spoke.

The defeat is a clear rebuke of the Bloc by Quebeckers, especially sovereigntists who turned a deaf ear to the constant calls for their support over the last week of the campaign.

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With about 25 per cent of the overall vote, the Bloc hit a historic low and suffered an embarrassing loss that will resonate throughout the sovereigntist movement.

Johanne Lavoie, a long-time sovereigntist who came to follow the results at the Bloc's election night rally in Montreal, said it is up to the PQ to carry the flame.

"There was a fatigue," she said of Quebeckers' relationship with the Bloc. "I think [the NDP support]was an elegant way to get out of the shackles of the sovereignty movement."

The Bloc had spent the last week of the campaign trying to mobilize the province's sovereigntist electorate. The strategy was risky, given that the Bloc has achieved its best scores by appealing to both nationalist and progressive voters.

But the strategic shift was deemed necessary as the Bloc realized the party's francophone voters were migrating toward the NDP, and that urgent action was needed to avoid losing traditional strongholds.

The Bloc figured that at least 40 per cent of the electorate in Quebec is sovereigntist, and tried to reach these voters in the last week, bringing former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau and Ms. Marois to campaign with Mr. Duceppe. They focused their energies on francophone ridings in the Montreal and Quebec City area, but failed to hold on to most of the seats that they had tried to salvage.

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The Bloc held its election gathering at the Telus Theatre in downtown Montreal, where the crowd was smaller than usual.

The Bloc won 54 seats in 2004, at the height of the Liberal sponsorship scandal, equalling its 1993 score. It saw its number of seats fall to 51 in 2006 and to 49 in 2008.

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