OTTAWA — A very long time ago, at the start of the election campaign, Yves-François Blanchet stood before a room of supporters that was only partly full and made his pitch.
Under his leadership, the Bloc Québécois had rebuilt itself, he told his audience at the party’s platform launch in Boucherville, Que. It had attracted new candidates and new, young members. Quebecers were starting to pay attention, he insisted.
At the end of his speech, he listed the Quebec values the Bloc would defend, playing on the party’s slogan, “Le Québec, c’est nous” (“Quebec, it’s us”). “Our culture, c’est nous. The French language, c’est nous. Beating Justin Trudeau, c’est nous!” he said, to prolonged applause.
“And you never know. Maybe…,” he said, pausing for effect, “the balance of power….”
“C’est nous!” the crowd roared.
At the time, it seemed like a sort of heady optimism entirely divorced from the party’s reality. This was back when a majority government seemed within reach and the Bloc Québécois was projected to win only a few more seats than the 10 it holds currently. Blanchet was hoping for 20 of the province’s 78 ridings, but no one outside Quebec was paying much attention. The Bloc had looked for a long time like a spent force.
But that was before Blanchet’s strong debate performances, before Quebec’s secularism law became a major campaign issue, before Quebec Premier François Legault issued a list of demands that only the Bloc Québécois could fully support.
Now, in the final days of the campaign, everyone is paying attention. Polls suggest the Bloc is neck-and-neck with the Liberals in Quebec and could win between 30 and 40 seats — the Liberals currently hold 40 ridings in the province. The party’s rise, together with a surging NDP that is now projected to take around 40 seats nationwide, has dramatically reduced the odds of a majority government of any stripe. The possibility of the Bloc Québécois holding the balance of power, as Blanchet suggested a month ago, suddenly seems very real.
The party’s rise, together with a surging NDP that is now projected to take around 40 seats nationwide, has dramatically reduced the odds of a majority government of any stripe
This is not the same Bloc Québécois that formed in the early 1990s to promote Quebec independence. The Bloc is still a sovereigntist party, but observers say Blanchet is unlikely to push for a referendum anytime soon. Instead, he has harnessed a new type of nationalist sentiment in Quebec and will demand greater autonomy for the province on immigration, taxation and other issues.
If there is anything the last few weeks have demonstrated, it’s that reports of the Bloc Québécois’ death have been greatly exaggerated. It was a mistake, say political scientists, to assume the party’s time had passed, or that Quebecers no longer have any interest in sovereignty just because they’re not clamouring for a referendum. Whatever the outcome on Monday, it seems likely the next government will need to take the Bloc seriously and to tread lightly around Quebec.
“We’ve rolled up our sleeves, we’ve spit on our hands, and we’ve started over,” Blanchet ended his speech last month, invoking comments made by former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau after Quebecers voted narrowly to reject separation in 1995. “Because le Québec, c’est nous!”
It’s not easy to pin down exactly why the Bloc is doing as well as it is. The party was decimated in 2011, when the NDP’s Orange Wave swept 59 of Quebec’s 75 seats and reduced the Bloc to just four. The Bloc took 10 seats in 2015, but that still left it two seats shy of official party status.
A year ago, when Quebecers elected Legault’s right-leaning CAQ government for the first time and relegated the sovereigntist Parti Québécois to just nine seats, it was seen by many as proof that Quebec had set aside its long-standing debate over independence.
But the CAQ, while not calling for separation, has embraced a new type of nationalism, said Jean-François Godbout, a political scientist at the Université de Montréal. “It’s a different form of nationalism,” he said. “Protect the French language. A strong Quebec within the federation.”
A year after the election, the CAQ government remains popular, with an impressive approval rating of 74 per cent among francophones, according to one recent poll. The government’s controversial secularism law, Bill 21, which bans religious symbols for some public-sector employees, including teachers, judges and police officers, is also popular in the province. Early in the campaign, Legault issued a list of four demands to the federal party leaders, including that they stay out of any legal challenge of Bill 21. He also wants more control over immigration in Quebec, a single income tax return to be administered in Quebec and an expansion of the province’s language laws.
Blanchet, who was acclaimed leader of the Bloc Québécois in January after years of party infighting, has hitched himself to Legault’s wagon, despite the fact that the CAQ is not sovereigntist. He supports all of Legault’s demands, the only federal leader to do so.
He has also positioned the Bloc as the only party that supports Bill 21. Most other leaders have said they won’t intervene in a court challenge of the law, though Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has left that door open. But Blanchet is quick to point out that the other parties oppose the law — the best they can promise, he has said, is to “endure” it.
Blanchet has been smart to “surf on the CAQ wave,” said Daniel Béland, a political scientist at McGill University. He has also delivered strong performances during the campaign’s two French-language debates.
But beyond that, Quebecers are sensitive to perceived “Quebec bashing” on issues like Bill 21, Godbout said, and feel they need a strong voice in Parliament. Béland said they are aware of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s attacks on the federal equalization program, and of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cuts to francophone services, including a decision to cut funding for a francophone university. Moreover, they object to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s plan for a national energy corridor that could include a new pipeline through the province.
“There is a sense that Quebec and francophones are under attack,” Béland said.
It’s still difficult to predict how much power the Bloc Québécois will wield. If the Liberals or Conservatives manage to pull off a majority, of course, they won’t have much. But in the more likely event of a minority government, it’s all about mathematics, said Godbout. If the NDP supports a Liberal minority government, but the two parties together don’t have the 170 votes needed for a majority, the Liberals would likely need the Bloc’s support. If the Conservatives win the most seats, they would probably also need votes from the Bloc, given that NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has ruled out working with them.
“The dream scenario for them is really a minority Parliament in which they will be needed to basically prop up the existing government,” said Béland.
Blanchet has said the Bloc Québécois will not enter into any formal coalition, and will instead decide whether to support the government on a case-by-case basis, depending on what benefits Quebec. Béland said the Bloc will likely take a “quid pro quo” approach, voting with the government on issues that matter less to Quebec in exchange for concessions on important files.
With a Liberal minority, the Bloc might push for more action on climate change, alongside the NDP and Greens, Béland said. But the party is also likely to want some movement on Legault’s demands for more autonomy. In that regard, the Bloc could stand to benefit from a Conservative minority — Scheer has promised to allow Quebec to administer a single income tax return and has expressed a willingness to give the province more control over immigration.
But the two parties would likely hit a sticking point on the environment. Blanchet has said the Bloc would not support the Conservatives’ promise to roll back the federal carbon tax, and the party is firmly opposed to any new pipeline through Quebec. “If the Conservatives are in power, they’ll be smart enough to not go through with an energy corridor forced through Quebec because the political price to pay would be dramatic,” Blanchet told reporters this week.
That would leave the Conservatives with a “limited range of actions,” Godbout said, “because they need the support of the Bloc Québécois.”
For his part, Scheer has said he won’t enter into “any type of negotiations” with the Bloc, though the party could support a Conservative minority without negotiating a formal agreement.
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Trudeau, Scheer and Singh all spent time in Quebec this week, trying to shore up support in the face of the Bloc’s rising popularity. Scheer, whose hopes for gains in Quebec have been all but dashed by the Bloc’s resurgence, has made much of the fact that the Bloc’s traditional allegiance lies with the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, not the CAQ. Blanchet was formerly a PQ cabinet minister.
“He likes to pretend to be Mr. Legault’s best friend, but it’s clear his priority is to work with the Parti Québécois and to work toward another referendum,” Scheer told reporters earlier this week.
Blanchet has been open about the fact that the Bloc remains a sovereigntist party, but he hasn’t made independence a focus of his campaign. Asked on Thursday about his party’s rise in the polls, he was candid. “I must admit, however independentist I am, that I don’t believe it’s because people decided yesterday morning that they wanted Quebec to become a country tomorrow morning,” he said.
He’s also given no indication he plans to push for a referendum in the near future. “Our responsibility is to keep the idea alive, and when the people of Quebec are ready then we will come back with something,” he said. “But it’s theirs. It’s not a country that we will impose on them. It’s a country that they will perhaps eventually want, at the moment of their own choosing.”
Godbout said the Bloc has made a smart decision to hide the “scarecrow” of separation at a time when Quebecers aren’t very interested. “‘Let’s not talk about sovereignty and let’s get elected,’” he said, explaining the strategy. “It’s a very difficult equilibrium to maintain and you’re walking on a tightrope.”
But Béland said it’s a mistake to think that sovereignty is gone for good. Surveys suggest that support for an independent Quebec still hovers around 30 to 35 per cent in the province. “Don’t think this is dead and it will never be revived,” he said.
If Quebecers feel slighted by the rest of Canada on major issues — if a Conservative government were to try and build a pipeline through the province, for instance, or if the Supreme Court were to strike down part of Bill 21 — separatist sentiment could flare up again, Béland said.
“These things over time could basically put sovereignty back on the map,” he said. “I think the sovereigntists, they have not lost hope. … (But) it’s more about long-term hope than short-term hope.”
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