After question period on Wednesday, Réal Ménard stood up to give his farewell address to the House of Commons.
“When you do this kind of work, you choose to transform society democratically through debates,” the Bloc MP said, before thanking his staff and colleagues. Members from all parties came over to shake his hand at his desk.
A few hours before, Ménard sat down with Xtra.ca to talk about his 16 years in federal politics.
Ménard was first elected in 1993, the first election where the Bloc came to prominence in Québec and formed the Official Opposition under Lucien Bouchard. He was also the second gay MP to be out in Parliament, after Svend Robinson.
“In 1993, the relationship between the Bloc and the other parties was more difficult,” says Ménard. “There were suspicions, and people didn’t really understand what the Bloc was, and we didn’t have a very friendly relationship at this time.”
With a referendum only two years later, tensions were high — something that has since cooled considerably.
“I think that now nobody is afraid of the Bloc,” he says. “People respect what we have done, people respect democracy, people vote for us. We are in the first polling position in Quebec, but this is not the same climate. It’s more comfortable, it’s more agreeable to work [in].”
The very presence of the Bloc has changed the political landscape in Ottawa.
“With the Bloc, the rest of Canada has a better understanding about what Quebec is,” says Ménard. “That we have a nationalism movement here, and what is the hope of the Quebec [people]. That’s the role we play.”
Because of the Bloc’s largely progressive stand on many social issues, Ménard says that he has often received letters from other parts of the country thanking him for the work that his party had done.
The presence of the Bloc has also had the effect of making minority governments more likely.
“For us, minority governments represent a good opportunity to have a deal, to have a negotiation,” says Ménard. “When we have a minority government, it’s the role of the Prime Minister to work with all people and to consider all of the options. Mr Harper is not a real leader, and he refuses to have a collaboration or cooperation with other leaders — we don’t feel responsible for that.
“In my view, we have better work in committees when there’s a minority government, and question period is more interesting,” he says.
Since his public coming out, Ménard has seen a sea change in Canadian politics, though not to what he calls the “institutional homophobia” of the Conservative party. Nevertheless, he cut his teeth on issues of sexual orientation.
“I remember when I was elected, the first debate we had was to add sexual orientation in the Canadian Human [Rights Act],” says Ménard. “We had a lot of debate, and I remember every week I had to speak, I had to ask a question, I had to fight in favour of gay rights. Now, I think in public life, it’s not a major debate.”
Of his greatest accomplishments, Ménard lists his work on anti-gang legislation and the advancement of queer rights in Canada, though he does still have unfinished business that he won’t be able to see through.
“I’ve fought for many years to convince the government, my party and all parties to give more place to private members’ bills,” says Ménard.
Among his unfinished goals, he also mentions his efforts to put forward a poverty strategy. Ménard hoped to add “social condition” as prohibited ground of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act.
“There are eight provinces that have this grounds for discrimination — the federal [human rights legislation] doesn’t, and I’m a little disappointed that I can’t adopt this private member’s bill in Parliament.”
Ménard lists a few of his colleagues — the NDP’s Libby Davies, Liberal Hedy Fry and the Bloc’s Christiane Gagnon — as those who can carry the torch for poverty issues. He sees Liberal MP Scott Brison and NDP MP Bill Siksay as those who can become leaders on queer issues — especially as there are currently no other openly gay or lesbian Bloc MPs.
Ménard’s next move is to run for mayor of the Montreal borough of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, virtually the same area he represented federally, on the slate of controversial candidate Louise Harel. The move was spurred by a desire to get more involved in issues that are closer to the daily lives of people.
“I think my chances are very good because I’m very involved in my community, I’m well-known, I was an MP for 16 years, but I know a campaign is a campaign,” says Ménard.
He begins knocking on doors on Friday.
His only other regret is that his partner won’t be joining him in Montreal, as he has just taken a new job in Ottawa and likely won’t be able to move for another two years or so.
Rising in the House after his resignation speech, Davies recalled a time when Ménard joined with her and Siksay in forming a “pink triangle caucus” during the same-sex marriage debates.
“We wrote a letter to all of the leaders of the parties expressing our concern about the impact of that debate and the tone of that debate,” said Davies in the House. “I think it was a great evidence of the kind of cross-party alliance and solidarity of interest that we sometimes manage to find in this House, and I’ve always known the member from Hochelaga to be a member that reaches out beyond partisan lines.”