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Sovereignty movement regroups as voters call for change

Quebec sovereigntists have to go back to the drawing board.

The movement's step-by-step approach to independence was based on the assumption that the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa would work hand-in-hand with a Parti Québécois government in Quebec City. The two parties would press Ottawa to devolve powers to Quebec, and join forces to stop any measure in the House of Commons deemed negative for the province.

But a wave of NDP support in Monday's election decimated the Bloc, and most Quebec ridings have federalist MPs for the first time in nearly two decades. With the Conservatives winning a majority, the sovereignty movement must give pro-Canada forces the benefit of the doubt.

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Acknowledging that Quebeckers have "clearly expressed their desire to trying something else," the Bloc challenged NDP Leader Jack Layton to make gains for Quebec in Ottawa.

"Quebeckers now have the right to expect results, changes, concrete measures related to the recognition of the Québécois nation," Bloc vice-president Viviane Barbot said in a statement. "Prime Minister [Stephen]Harper cannot ignore this reality. The ball is now in the federalist camp."

The Bloc is left with a rump of only four MPs in the House of Commons, which is 43 seats fewer than it had at dissolution.

Defeated in his own riding, Gilles Duceppe resigned as leader on Monday night. It was the end of a stunning campaign in which the Bloc started off with a 20 point lead in the polls that evaporated after the leaders' debates. The NDP won 58 seats out of 75 in Quebec.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois insisted the Bloc's sovereigntist project "is not dead." Defeated Bloc candidates will be new blood for the PQ to fight the next election on sovereignty, she said.

"It will also liberate among them new energies to work even harder within Quebec," she said.

Quebec Liberal Premier Jean Charest warned people in the rest of Canada against jubilating over the Bloc's demise.

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"This does not mean the sovereigntist movement has disappeared," Mr. Charest said. "The difference now is that the debate will be in Quebec more than anywhere else."

During the last week of the campaign, Mr. Duceppe attended events with PQ officials throughout Quebec, calling on all sovereigntists to unite behind the Bloc.

At a campaign stop, PQ MNA Agnès Maltais said in an interview that if the PQ comes back to power, it will repeatedly call for new powers from the federal government. Any victory would be a notch on the PQ's belt, and Ottawa would be blamed for any failure.

"At the Parti Québécois, we have said that we want to see Quebec progress and to obtain victories. It's obviously an asset for us to have the Bloc in Ottawa, because if we want to make gains, we need to have people speaking in our name over there," she said.

But with only four MPs and no leader, the Bloc will have little power in Ottawa. The party has not launched a formal leadership race, stating only that its senior officers will meet soon to decide on the way forward.

Bloc officials said the party will need time to recover from the electoral debacle. In the current caucus, Maria Mourani from Montreal and Jean-François Fortin from the Gaspésie will be expected to be the most visible in the House when they get a chance to ask questions.

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"After you've been hit by a tsunami, you don't start by rebuilding houses. You recover the bodies, bury the dead, help the wounded, and rest up. Then you start rebuilding," a Bloc source said.

For now, hundreds of staff members will lose their jobs, and without official party status, the Bloc will have to forego its federal funding.

The Bloc's near-obliteration changes the dynamics among sovereigntists, but it might actually come as good news to those inside the movement who disliked having a sovereigntist presence in Parliament.

"Inside the sovereignty movement, there was a clear contestation of this idea of having a party in Ottawa," said McGill political science professor Antonia Maioni.

Ms. Maioni is of the view that the strong NDP results were the reflection of a thirst for change on the federal scene, and not necessarily a rejection of the sovereigntist project.

"The NDP wave was largely a protest vote against all parties, including the Bloc Québécois," she said.

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