06/14/2014 11:18 EDT | Updated 08/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Mario Beaulieu Chosen As New Bloc Quebecois Leader


MONTREAL - The new head of the Bloc Quebecois says he plans to recapture the hearts of Quebec voters by putting a greater emphasis on independence.

Mario Beaulieu, an ardent sovereigntist and the former head of the nationalist St. Jean Baptiste Society, won a slim victory on Saturday over his only opponent in the party's leadership race, Bloc MP Andre Bellavance.

Beaulieu said explaining the benefits of breaking away from Canada will be his top priority.

"Our opponents have often announced the death of the independence movement," he told a crowd of supporters at a concert venue in Montreal.

"I have a surprise for them: we are returning with more determination and energy than ever."

Beaulieu has a difficult task ahead.

The Bloc was reduced to just four seats in the Commons in the 2011 election from the 49 it held after the 2008 vote.

There are doubts about Quebec's appetite for sovereignty after the Parti Quebecois also suffered a drubbing. They had their lowest level of support in 44 years in the April 7 provincial election.

In the view of one Beaulieu supporter, however, the PQ and Bloc's popularity waned because they didn't put enough focus on their raison d'etre.

"What unites sovereigntists is sovereignty," Jean-Jacques Rousseau Martel said after hearing Beaulieu's victory speech.

"From now on, we're going to talk about sovereignty first and worry about getting elected afterward."

For his part, Beaulieu said he plans to speak about independence "before, during and after elections."

His first challenge will be to unite the party.

Bellavance had the support of the other three Bloc MPs during the leadership race. But Beaulieu was well known from his time with the St. Jean Baptiste Society, an institution that takes a strong stance on protecting the French language and promoting sovereignty.

In the end, Beaulieu captured 53.5 per cent of the vote. Some 19,000 party members were eligible to vote and 58.5 per cent of them cast a ballot.

The previous Bloc leader, Daniel Paille, resigned last December for health reasons. Paille took over from longtime party head Gilles Duceppe after the 2011 election.

Beaulieu plans to split his time between Ottawa and Quebec leading up to the 2015 election.

He said he will work to unite the sovereigntist movement — though he appears to have already ruffled some feathers.

Duceppe told reporters he "didn't appreciate" a reference in Beaulieu's speech to an "attitude of defeatism" within the Bloc over the past 20 years, something he denied was the case.

Duceppe, who was party leader for much of that period, called the comments "pure demagogy."

The Harper Conservatives also took a jab at the new Bloc chief.

Denis Lebel, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's political lieutenant in Quebec, was quick to dismiss the Bloc's new leader.

"Quebecers said clearly that they are fed up with the old quarrels. The Bloc has had its day," he said in a statement issued Saturday.

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