MONTREAL - Quebec's upstart pro-independence party has lost its founding leader.
Jean-Martin Aussant — who created, led, and was the public face of Option nationale — has announced he's leaving politics, placing his party before an uncertain future.
The former Morgan Stanley economist was seen in opposition as a rising star on the Parti Quebecois benches and as a candidate for finance minister in any future PQ government, but he left in 2011 to create a party that would be more aggressive in pursuing sovereignty.
Option nationale failed to win a seat in last year's provincial election. However, the party had unnerved some in the PQ because of its youthful leader, growing grassroots, and energetic online presence.
The 43-year-old Aussant said he wants to spend more time with his young family. He suggested he might return to politics eventually.
"My heart is still in it — at 100 per cent," he told a news conference.
"It's the personal family reality that is prompting this very difficult decision."
He also urged his fellow partisans to keep building the organization they created. He expressed pride that Option nationale, which was only an idea a couple of years ago, had recruited 8,000 members and attracted many young people to become engaged in politics.
"This is your party," he said, referring to his members. "You built it and you are home. I'm inviting you to continue expanding the house and beautifying it to your tastes."
He said Option nationale remains more relevant than ever because, in the current political landscape, it is the only party determined to transform the will for independence into concrete action.
Although nearly 50 per cent of Quebecers voted to separate in the 1995 referendum, recent polls place support for independence far lower and there is no timetable for another sovereignty vote.
In an interview with The Canadian Press last year, Aussant explained how he would try to succeed where the PQ has failed.
His plan: Start building the country first, ask the referendum question later.
Aussant said that armed with a majority mandate, an Option nationale government would immediately begin seeking to repatriate powers from Canada to control all of its own taxes; negotiate and sign its own international treaties; and lay out its own criminal code.
The Canadian government could agree or disagree. In any case, an Option nationale government would already be writing Quebec's own constitution with broad public input.
The constitution would include a declaration of sovereignty.
Finally, he said the people of Quebec would be asked to vote on the document in a referendum — which, in Aussant's opinion, Ottawa and the rest of the world would likely deem legitimate.
"There have been 40 new countries since the first referendum in Quebec (in 1980) — they've all been recognized and none of them has done it more democratically than we would do here," Aussant said at the time.
He argued that the PQ had become a "so-called sovereigntist party." He viewed former premier Jacques Parizeau, the sovereigntist hardliner who also had become estranged from the political party he helped found in 1968, as a mentor.
Parizeau and his wife, a former MNA, had even become involved in Option nationale.
Party support in recent polls hovered around three or four per cent. But its long-term objective was to win office after several elections — like the PQ, which after its 1968 creation elected MNAs but was clobbered in its first two votes before a surprise win in 1976.
Option nationale also worried the more established independence party that it might play the role of spoiler in tight ridings.