POLITICS
08/28/2011 05:00 EDT | Updated 10/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Bloc Quebecois MP Maria Mourani Holding The Fort In Montreal

MONTREAL - For most of those involved in the Quebec separatist movement, 2011 has been marked by major upheaval.

The crushing defeat of the Bloc Quebecois last May has left it rudderless and leaderless, stripped of official party status.

The provincial Parti Quebecois is in disarray, with several members of the legislature having jumped ship. The party has plunged in the polls and is under threat from rival movements on the right and the left.

In the midst of the turmoil, Bloc MP Maria Mourani is holding the course.

"This much movement, this much stirring, it means that there will be change," said Mourani, 42, one of just four Bloc candidates elected last May.

"Because it's not just the general population, but within the movement too, people want change.

"But when there's a storm, you don’t change course. You stay in the storm until it passes you."

Mourani's narrow win in the northern Montreal riding of Ahuntsic means she is now the Bloc's only woman MP, as well as its only representative on the island of Montreal.

The election results have brought added pressure and a lot more work for Mourani, a married mother of two.

She has been the party’s longtime critic on women's status and public security, but has now had to add a few more portfolios to the list: environment, justice, transportation and official languages.

And it must all be done with less staff than ever before: the Bloc team in Ottawa has been reduced from between 60 and 80 people, including MPs and a 10-person research team, to the four MPs, a part-time researcher, one parliamentary aide and one press attache.

Running around trying to observe the work of committees (since losing party status, the Bloc cannot sit on them), is a particular challenge for the four MPs, Mourani says.

"We’re trying to do the job of 47 MPs with four," Mourani said. "Listen, we do what we can. We’re human beings, we have families, we all work enormously hard," she continued, adding with a laugh that her Blackberry has become "an umbilical cord."

Other pressures loom for Bloc members: the process of soul-searching, of resurrecting the near-dead party from its ashes, and a possible leadership race this fall — one Mourani says she is considering entering.

Despite all the changes in her life, a great part of Mourani's job is unchanged. Parliament is in session for about 130 days a year; during the rest of the time, her job as an MP is largely unaffected by the swirling winds of change at the party level.

"What some people forget is that in the parliamentary system, a member is a member, whether they are prime minister or an MP," Mourani says.

"We have exactly the same privileges and rights. My MP budget has not changed. My employees are the same as before. And my ability to talk to ministers, to advance local projects, is just the same."

Her spacious offices, located in a former bathing-suit factory with a view of the a car dealership next door, have not changed.

When The Canadian Press met her one day recently, she explained that her job, on the local level at least, hasn't changed much either.

She breezes into the office in a long skirt and white tank top, coffee in hand. After a couple of meetings and a quick tour of the office, she and her assistant hop into a silver Nissan Cube to head off to the day’s appointments.

On this day, that means meeting a resident with a housing problem, visiting a strip mall where she is campaigning to bring back a Canada Post office, and hooking up with a husband and wife who are worried about street-gang activity on their doorstep.

Mourani, a former probation officer who has written two books about street gangs, sits at the kitchen table and listens to the couple complain about the loud parties, street racing, and property damage taking place on their doorstep.

Mourani suggests they recruit a group of neighbours to make an appeal to the borough council. She and her assistant make plans to contact the city about putting in speed bumps.

"It won't change in a day," she warns the couple, and they nod.

When asked why she is one of the few Bloc MPs to survive the NDP juggernaut four months ago, she cites her close ties and deep involvement with the local community as a possible reason.

Although she no longer lives in the area she represents, she spent most of her years there after arriving in Canada in 1988 (she is of Lebanese descent, but was born in Ivory Coast).

"My whole life has been here," she said.

And it shows.

Everywhere she goes, she is recognized. On this day, at least five people approach her in the street.

Pierre Gingras, director of the local youth-employment centre, has worked with Mourani on numerous projects ever since she was first elected in 2006.

He says she is always ready to jump in with local projects, to make a call to a minister, or to attend a local roundtable meeting.

"She's a very strong presence in the community," he said. "In my opinion, it's Maria people voted for, not her party."

Despite her obvious popularity with the locals, her win was far from a landslide. In fact, she has won all her three federal election battles by less than three percentage points. She thinks the closeness of her wins the first two times might have helped her in the latest campaign.

"Maybe since we're so used to fighting, we never let our guard down," she says with a laugh. "I'm used to those hot, tight races to the finish."

But ultimately, her success is a mystery to her.

"You can say it's my organization, you can listen to what people say, but in the end you never know," she says with a shrug.

Mourani is focusing on her party's future. She is in favour of delaying a leadership race until next year and wants the party to take the time to consult its members, "not just the leaders, but all the members," in small workshops across Quebec.

"When a person is badly injured, they’re not on their feet the next day," she says. "And it’s the same with a party."

But wounded as the Bloc may be, she maintains her belief that the party is long from dead.

"You can’t be afraid of defeat," she says. "I never have been. I’ve been defeated before (she ran and lost for the PQ in 2003) and it always motivated me to be better, to be stronger.

"It will be the same with us."