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Philippe Couillard walks to his seat following his speech at the swearing in ceremony, Thursday, April 17, 2014 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The race for the leadership of the beleaguered Bloc Québécois is starting in earnest as the province's sovereignty movement stands at a critical crossroads in the wake of the crushing defeat by the Parti Québécois in last month's provincial election.

At a weekend convention in Rimouski, about 300 kilometres east of Quebec City, Bloc members, who suffered their own humiliating defeat in the 2011 federal election, witnessed their first debate between two aspiring leadership candidates who have come to personify the difficult choice facing supporters of Quebec independence.

Mario Beaulieu, 54, has been a political activist for 20 years and a vocal defender of French language rights in the province. His candidacy is forcing the Bloc out of its comfort zone as a defender of Quebec's interest in Ottawa. Promoting Quebec independence, he argued, must become the Bloc's sole purpose and rallying Quebeckers to its cause its only objective.

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"The strategy of sovereigntist parties of always putting sovereignty on the sidelines in order to attract non-sovereigntist voters has resulted in the decline of the independence movement and the splitting of the vote," Mr. Beaulieu said in an interview at the conclusion of the Bloc Québécois convention. "When we are no longer focused on our objectives, sovereigntists tend to look at other alternatives."

Mr. Beaulieu embraces former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau's view that the past provincial election was the culmination of two decades of sovereigntist leaders refusing to openly defend political independence and a referendum during election campaigns for fear of losing votes.

"The Bloc must spearhead the drive towards sovereignty," Mr. Beaulieu said.

"The PQ will face the same dilemma. We need to stand with the courage of our convictions. We won't be able to mobilize young people if we keep hiding our ideal, which is to have our country."

His bold strategy also calls for unconventional and brash initiatives such as requiring every Bloc MP after next year's election to contribute as much as $50,000 of their $163,700-a-year salary to a foundation that would be created to finance the promotion of sovereignty.

This certainly wasn't the type of debate André Bellavance had in mind when the Bloc MP became the first to officially announce his candidacy to replace former leader Daniel Paillé who suddenly quit for health reasons last December.

Mr. Bellavance, 49, is a subdued, unpretentious yet experienced politician who lacks the notoriety of his mentor Gilles Duceppe but embodies the former Bloc leader's cautious and more conventional approach to sovereignty, which Mr. Beaulieu clearly opposes.

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"Delegates at the BQ convention were not there to wipe the slate clean and do away with the past in order to suddenly abandon our attraction to voters who may be undecided, who may not be supporters of sovereignty but who want MPs to speak on their behalf in Ottawa," Mr. Bellavance said in a telephone interview on Sunday. "That is the main difference I have with my opponent."

Approximately 20,000 Bloc Québécois members will be eligible to choose a new leader during a telephone voting process June 11 through 13. The result will be announced on Saturday, June 14.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said 2,000 BQ members will be eligible to choose a new leader. In fact, the number is 20,000.

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