It is ironic that the only politicians Quebeckers might have ever trusted to lead the province to independence were the ones most ambivalent about it. Neither René Lévesque nor Lucien Bouchard was an absolutist and both considered renewed federalism as good an outcome as sovereignty.
“I’d be afraid of someone who calls themselves absolutely indépendantiste,” Mr. Bouchard declares in a new documentary. “That’s someone I’d fear enormously, whom I’d fight.”
You couldn’t find anyone more absolutist than Mario Beaulieu to lead the Bloc Québécois, the federal party Mr. Bouchard founded (in his words) in a “one-shot” attempt to set the stage for sovereignty.
In Mr. Bouchard’s estimation, the Bloc reached its best-before date on Oct. 30, 1995, with the Yes side’s narrow referendum defeat. It should have closed up shop then.
“The Bloc’s presence [in Ottawa] dilutes Quebec’s power within the federation,” he tells journalist Yves Boisvert in the film, set to air on Monday on Télé-Québec. “When you send a caucus of 30 or 40 [governing party] MPs like we used to, there’s a strong chance that the heavyweights [are] in the cabinet. … When everyone is around the table, you’re going to grab some for Quebec.”
It would take six more federal elections before Quebec voters started to come around to that thinking. The Bloc owed its extraordinary run – it consistently won between half and two-thirds of Quebec’s 75 seats – to the haplessness of its rivals. As long as the Liberals (sponsorship scandal) and Conservatives (arts cuts and general obtuseness) kept shooting themselves in the foot, the Bloc remained the default option for francophones.
Le bon Jack, as Jack Layton was known locally, changed all that with the Orange Wave of 2011. Quebeckers voted for the NDP knowing that their MPs would still sit in opposition, but they finally decided that their interests were best served by a federalist party. The Bloc was reduced to four seats. It garnered a fifth when New Democrat Claude Patry crossed the floor. But Mr. Patry said this week that he will not seek re-election, a few days after MP Jean-François Fortin quit the caucus over Mr. Beaulieu’s “radicalization” of the party.
Now down to three House of Commons seats (Montreal MP Maria Mourani was booted from the caucus last year for speaking out against the former Parti Québécois government’s Charter of Quebec Values), it’s a strong bet that there will be no Bloc incumbents running in 2015.
Mr. Beaulieu, the arch-nationalist who “won” the Bloc leadership in June, insists that the party’s revival lies in his hardcore-independence strategy aimed at uniting voters who split their support provincially among the PQ and two smaller sovereigntist parties. A more likely scenario is the Bloc’s total obliteration in 2015, as Mr. Beaulieu scares off what is left of the moderates.
The radicalization of the Bloc will soon spread to the Parti Québécois, whose own leadership race is set to kick off late next month. As the PQ sinks further in public support after its historic April defeat at the polls, it is increasingly dominated by the kind of absolutists Mr. Bouchard fears.
Bernard Drainville, the PQ minister who piloted the values charter to its electoral crash and burn, just returned from Scotland (whose Sept. 18 referendum is on independence) declaring himself a convert to clarity. Out with the mushy sovereigntist label. Mr. Drainville, a near-certain leadership candidate, wants the PQ to fight the third referendum on independence. Period. No hyphens, no clauses.
Mr. Bouchard, 75, does not expect to live to see the day. And if he did, he would not even try to persuade his own adult sons to vote Yes. “I hope I won’t see it, because we will lose a third one,” he says in the film.
As Mr. Bouchard’s comments hit the news in Quebec this week, the absolutists were quick to mumble I-told-you-so’s. They always pegged him for a closet federalist. He was, after all, once an open federalist. He wrote his ex-pal Brian Mulroney’s 1984 speech vowing to reintegrate Quebec into the constitutional fold with “honour and enthusiasm” and later served in his cabinet.
What the absolutists still don’t get, however, is that Mr. Bouchard, like Mr. Lévesque, is perfectly emblematic of the ambivalence most francophone Quebeckers feel about the province’s place within Canada. His mercurial temperament and rhetorical overkill notwithstanding, he was the level-headed pragmatist Quebeckers felt would always do the right thing.
They will never feel that way about an absolutist.