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Quebec Opposition MNA Stéphane Bédard announces his decision to resign, Oct. 22, 2015 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Two key players in the Quebec independence movement have resigned from their political posts, throwing a one-two punch that exposed separatists as weakened and exhausted after a long fight.

Gilles Duceppe resigned Thursday as leader of the Bloc Québécois, ending a comeback attempt that failed to arrest the party's decline in popular support. Fewer than one in five Quebeckers voted for the sovereigntist party in the Monday election, down from a high of nearly one-in-two in 1993.

Earlier that day, Parti Québécois stalwart Stéphane Bédard also took his leave after 17 years in the National Assembly. He is less well known across Canada but probably more important to the movement. In the past couple years alone, he stepped into the leadership vacuum left by Pauline Marois's resignation and kept the peace between warring parties. Mr. Bédard's reward for holding the party together was to be sidelined by new Leader Pierre Karl Péladeau.

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The combined departures marked another low point for the sovereignty movement this week.

On top of the Bloc's dismal numbers, a majority of Quebec seats went to the Liberals led by a Trudeau -- the name synonymous in separatist circles with Canadian attempts to thwart nationalist ambitions.

In its heyday elections from 1993 to 2008, the Bloc won the majority of federal seats in Quebec and even once formed the Official Opposition. Mr. Duceppe resigned after a disastrous 2011 election that appeared to put the party at the brink of extinction with four seats. After the party spent 2013 and 2014 in single-digit popular support under the flagging leadership of nationalist hard-liner Mario Beaulieu, Mr. Duceppe came back.

On Monday, he failed for the second consecutive election to gain official party status, falling two seats short of the required 12. Nineteen per cent popular support was a recovery from dismal springtime polls but still more than four percentage points short of the 2011 result.

"The Bloc was playing for its existence. The goal of my return was to save this party, which remains important to the 817,000 Quebeckers who voted for us," Mr. Duceppe said in his resignation speech hastily arranged at Bloc headquarters in an industrial strip in Montreal's north end. "With 10 MPs, the future of our party is assured for four more years."

Mr. Duceppe said he delayed his departure a couple days to make sure the party was in order. Indeed, it has no debt and has an interim leader in Rivière-du-Nord MP Rhéal Fortin. But the future is far from secure. With no official status, the party will get little airtime and few resources in Ottawa. The party has no debt but not much cash either and no obvious path for raising funds. At one point even Mr. Péladeau, then a candidate for the PQ leadership, questioned the point of the Bloc. (He later retracted.)

The PQ is not facing the same existential threat as the Bloc, but it, too, has watched its share of the popular vote continually slide to the 2014 election and its worst showing since 1970. Mr. Bédard, the son of one of the PQ's original 1976 government members, Marc-André Bédard, called it quits after 17 years.

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Stéphane Bédard, 47, was a cabinet minister under Lucien Bouchard, house leader under Ms. Marois, interim leader during the recent PQ leadership race, but was cast aside by Mr. Péladeau.

"I don't know what the future may hold, but I have to take a break. This high level of intensity has left scars," Mr. Bédard told the National Assembly.

Mr. Bédard cited family reasons for leaving, but tensions with Mr. Péladeau were on full display Thursday as Mr. Péladeau responded to the resignation with a terse and brief tribute.

Premier Philippe Couillard was far more generous with praise for his PQ rival, saying he showed enormous tact and diplomacy during the PQ leadership race.

"It shows there are key players who know sovereignty is not happening the day after tomorrow and they're better off doing something else," said François Legault, the Leader of the third party, Coalition Avenir Québec, who was once a PQ member.

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