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The PQ’s fresh face moves from barricades to the ballot

Leo Bureau-Blouin poses outside his campaign headquarters in Laval, Quebec, Aug. 6, 2012.

Christinne Muschi/For The Globe and Mail

One measure of Léo Bureau-Blouin's star power in Quebec can be found on Twitter, where the newly minted Parti Québécois candidate was mentioned more often than anyone or anything else in the province during the last week of July.

That was when the 20-year-old, who was part of the troika of young leaders thrust into the limelight during the recent Quebec student strike, announced his decision to run in the Sept. 4 provincial election.

Some of those tweets came from his detractors. His candidacy was denounced by several of those he marched beside during the dozens of demonstrations that rocked Montreal in the spring. They all but accused Mr. Bureau-Blouin of selling out to the establishment.

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He has also been criticized by some of his former comrades-in-arms by calling for a "truce" to the their pressure tactics during the election campaign. He and PQ Leader Pauline Marois argue any disruption of classes when colleges and universities return later this month would help the Liberals. Students start voting Tuesday on whether to continue their strike.

Despite the critics, Mr. Bureau-Blouin's move to join the PQ is a godsend for a party whose sovereigntist dream has long risked dying out with the baby boomer cohort that first embraced it. If it has any hope of reviving its "project," it badly needs young blood to carry the torch.

"One of the objectives of the PQ and the sovereignty movement is to not become the party or the idea of a single generation," Mr. Bureau-Blouin conceded during an interview in his campaign office in suburban Laval. "But there is a new generation that believes in the project."

Mr. Bureau-Blouin's cohort knew none of the grievances that gave birth to the sovereignty movement in the 1960s, when bilingual francophone Quebeckers earned less than unilingual anglophones despite comprising by far the majority of the population.

Measures taken by past PQ governments, and continued by Liberal ones, have been a huge success in securing French dominance and easing the cultural insecurity of francophones. That has made sovereignty unnecessary for many who once supported it.

Yet, to listen to Mr. Bureau-Blouin – who grew up in Sainte-Hyacinthe south of Montreal, a city of 53,000 that is 96.5-per-cent francophone – Quebec independence is as urgent as ever.

"Of course there is a difference between the linguistic preoccupations of the sixties and [the situation] today. But just to give one example, there has been a huge increase in English usage in Laval," he said, pointing to census data. "It's still a huge challenge for Quebec and Greater Montreal to preserve French."

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Sovereignty, Mr. Bureau-Blouin added somewhat counter-intuitively, "is a way of opening up to the world … Canada has a bad reputation around the world because those who represent us are conservatives who pulled out of Kyoto."

Mr. Bureau-Blouin insisted it is becoming harder and harder for Quebec to influence federal policies as its share of the Canadian population declines and power shifts to the more conservative western provinces.

If anyone can sell youngsters and their elders on sovereignty, it might just be Mr. Bureau-Blouin. As the head of the student association for the province's cégeps, or junior colleges, he earned all-round admiration for his modesty and measured tone during the spring turbulence.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, leader of the most radical student group known as the CLASSE, made more headlines. But Mr. Bureau-Blouin emerged as the true revelation, as a natural leader and consensus-builder that even those in favour of higher university tuition sometimes found hard to disagree with.

Premier Jean Charest has tried to use Mr. Bureau-Blouin's candidacy against the PQ, accusing Ms. Marois of favouring "referendums and the street" in contrast to his Liberals' promise of "order and stability." But if Ms. Marois pays a price at the ballot box for aligning herself with the students, it is unlikely to be Mr. Bureau-Blouin's fault.

Unlike other student leaders, he denounced the violence that occurred during some student protests. And unlike other student leaders, who called for the elimination of university tuition fees, Mr. Bureau-Blouin's association called only for a halt to the Charest government's proposed 82-per-cent tuition increase over seven years.

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The PQ has promised to raise fees by no more than the rate of inflation if it is elected.

Ms. Marois conceded on Monday that Mr. Bureau-Blouin would not be immediately named to her cabinet if she wins on Sept. 4. But she added that he would be handed "special mandates" in a PQ government, particularly related to youth issues. Mr. Bureau-Blouin is running in Laval-des-Rapides, a swing riding that the PQ has held in the past. Liberal MNA Alain Paquet, Mr. Charest's junior finance minister, won by only 1,300 votes in 2008.

The race risks being much tighter this time. In addition to the arrival of a star PQ candidate, the head of the province's order of engineers is running for the newly formed Coalition Avenir Québec. The CAQ is likely to drain votes from both of the established parties.

But Mr. Bureau-Blouin's candidacy brings much more to the PQ than a chance at picking up a seat. It sends a message to Quebeckers that the party and its mission will live on.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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