Friends said his career stalled in 1994, when he went from being the rector of the prestigious Grand Seminaire de Montreal to the head of a seminary in Edmonton, Alberta.
Being a Quebecois who spoke poor English worked against him in Western Canada. But longtime friend Bishop Lionel Gendron, Ouellet's former superior who sent him there, said the experience was ultimately good for him because it improved his English.
After returning to Rome in 1996 Ouellet rapidly gained prominence and respect teaching at the Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Lateran Pontifical University.
He rose from teaching priest to cardinal in less than three years. Ouellet's doctoral thesis on dogmatic theology included a discussion on the thoughts of his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss 20th century theologian who was highly regarded by Benedict.
"He's completely in the spirit of Benedict," said Michael Higgins, a Canadian who teaches at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. "Whether that makes him the ideal pope for our time is a different matter."
Some in Quebec question whether another conservative intellectual cut from the same cloth as Benedict should be the next pope. And the papal buzz around him has received a mixed response in the increasingly secular province.
He made headlines in Canada with his comments condemning abortion even in cases involving rape. "There's already a victim. Should we be making another one?" he asked.
Reaction from politicians and commentators was swift and, in some cases, ferocious.
In one particularly strident reaction, a Montreal La Presse columnist, Patrick Lagace, compared Ouellet to the Iranian imam, Kazem Sedighi, who once suggested scantily clad women were to blame for natural disasters.
Legace said in an interview that he stands behind his comments today: "Cardinal Ouellet and Quebecers don't see eye-to-eye. He's part of this conservative strain of Catholicism that doesn't resonate in Quebec. When he speaks about Quebec, he's like someone out of space."
Ouellet also spoke out against gay marriage when Canada was in the process of legalizing it. Quebec, Canada's most liberal province, was very much in favor of it. Ouellet has also been criticized for remaining silent on the issue of sexual abuse by priests in Quebec.
Ouellet himself has addressed the speculation that he could one day be pope, telling an interviewer in 2011 that it would be "a nightmare" because it is a "crushing responsibility" and the "kind of the thing you don't campaign for."
Louis Ouellet, Marc's older brother, said the cardinal returns home twice a year to see his family, including his 90 year-old mother, Graziella. Louis said the family is worried he won't be able to return home again if he does become pope.
"He's a family man when he is here and everybody likes to see him. There is a lot of love. He likes to eat with us, he likes to sing with us and enjoy being together with his family," he said. "If it happens, we are losing a brother, and my mother, she is losing a son."
Louis said Marc remains a hockey fan and is an avid swimmer.
"He will swim for three or four kilometers. Sometimes we're worried about him, he's out there all by himself and we lose sight of him," Louis Ouellet said. "But he always comes back."
Associated Press Writer Sean Farrell in Montreal contributed to this report.
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