Polls show that support for the Bloc Québécois has unexpectedly and rapidly fallen in this election campaign. If those polls are right, for the first time since the Bloc's birth in 1990, fewer than half of Quebec's MPs will be Bloquistes and the party will garner less than a third of the votes in the province.
Bloc strategists are clearly nervous. Having spent the first half of the campaign trying to bring under his tent all Quebeckers fearful of a Conservative majority, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe has changed course and begun addressing his message only to sovereigntists. He even asked former premier and arch-separatist Jacques Parizeau to campaign at his side. That carried the risk of alienating moderate nationalists, but the Bloc apparently had no choice: Even its most faithful seem tempted to jump ship to the NDP and Jack Layton.
No one knows for sure what will happen on Monday, but journalists and political scientists have already started to reflect on the meaning of this apparent sea change in Quebeckers' federal voting preferences. If the long-invincible Bloc Québécois does fall from its pedestal, will the hydra of separatism be mortally wounded? Will Quebec at last become a less turbulent and exacting member of the federation? The answer to both questions is an emphatic "no." Do not mistake Quebeckers' sudden attraction to the NDP for a radical change in the way they see Canada and their place in it.
In recent years, support for an independent Quebec has been stable at around 40 per cent. No upward trend, but no downward movement either. Whatever happens to the Bloc, the provincial Parti Québécois will remain a powerful political force.
There is no appetite whatsoever in the province for a referendum; in fact, most people are plain tired of that wrenching debate. Yet it would only take a Meech-like crisis - and Canadian history is full of such crises - to bring the issue to the fore and push support for separation over the 50-per-cent mark.
Most Quebeckers, even federalists, think that Quebec too often gets a raw deal in the federation. For instance, even if hard data clearly show otherwise, a majority of people here are convinced that they send more money in taxes to Ottawa than the federal government spends in the province, notably in the form of equalization payments. PQ Leader Pauline Marois recently declared that Quebec has had enough of subsidizing the oil industry in Alberta. No one pointed to the ridiculousness of such a statement.
Most Quebeckers, again including many federalists, think that the federation is becoming increasingly centralized, the federal government pushing the provinces, especially Quebec, out of their own jurisdictions. Facts again show that this view is unfounded, but facts are always weaker than perceptions. Deep down, most Quebeckers of all political stripes wish that the Constitution could be amended to recognize some form of special status for the province; only in this way could the National Assembly finally endorse the sacred document and a very old problem be solved.
Regardless of the political score on the morning of May 3, most residents in the province will still feel like Quebeckers first and Canadians second. The province's emotional attachment to Canada has steadily decreased in the past 20 years. Mention the Maple Leaf, O Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and peacekeeping to the province's youth and the reaction you will get, at best, is a shrug. Some, inside and outside Quebec, might wish that to change, but the prospects are infinitesimal.
Right place, right time
So what does the incredible shift of support from the Bloc to the NDP mean? It certainly reveals that most Quebec voters have grown tired of the Bloc as their most visible representative in Ottawa. In past elections, signs of Bloc fatigue had appeared. But, each time, Mr. Duceppe got a lucky break: something came up (the Liberal sponsorship scandal, the Conservatives' cuts in subsidies to the arts) that brought Quebeckers back to his party. There has been no such event in recent months. To the contrary, most of what happened on the political scene seemed to hurt the Bloc.
Last year, the Bloquistes celebrated their 20th anniversary. Political commentator Jean Lapierre thinks that is when the Bloc's troubles started. Voters suddenly realized that the Bloc, created as a temporary party, had been in place for a long while. Too long. A few months later, ahead of federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's 2011 budget, Mr. Duceppe presented a long list of demands to Ottawa totalling more than $5-billion. To English Canadians, this interminable list was preposterous. Many Quebeckers felt the same way.
Still, when the campaign started, Mr. Duceppe seemed poised to increase the number of seats held by his party. But his campaign has lacked enthusiasm. The leader himself looked tired of repeating the same old lines. His main argument - "Only the Bloc can prevent a Conservative majority" - seemed patently illogical. If a Tory majority was so dangerous to Quebec, why had the Bloc defeated the minority government in the first place?
So Quebeckers seemed ready to look at an alternative. Except in some regions of the province, Conservatives were not an option. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff appeared to many - unfairly - as a disconnected intellectual. Then there were Mr. Layton and the NDP. The party's lone MP in the province, Thomas Mulcair, had done a lot of work to adjust the party's policies to Quebec's sensitivities. Mr. Layton's personality did the rest.
The fact that the NDP Leader decided to go through an electoral campaign while recuperating from cancer and a broken hip brought him a lot of sympathy. His strong performances at the televised debate in French and during a popular talk show on Radio-Canada showed him as someone committed to social justice, close to ordinary people and equipped with a good sense of humour.
Suddenly, Quebeckers began referring to the NDP Leader as "Jack." In Quebec, people calling a politician by his first name means that he has struck an emotional chord. These days, Quebeckers don't say they'll vote for the NDP or for candidate so and so. With an air of defiance and fun, they announce they'll vote for "Jack."
What should the rest of the country make of a weakened Bloc and a triumphant NDP in Quebec, if this is what happens Monday night ?
As with any political storm, it would create opportunities and risks. If a majority of Quebec MPs were to be federalists, they could launch a dialogue between the province and the rest of Canada. Quebeckers could finally come back to the table and participate in the national debates we need on issues such as energy, the environment, health care, religious diversity and poverty in aboriginal communities. Both Quebec and the country as a whole would benefit from such a renewed dialogue.
However, no one should be under the illusion that co-existence between Canadians of different languages, backgrounds and regions will become easier. That co-existence will always require a lot of work, tolerance and the will to compromise.
By abandoning the Bloc in droves, Quebeckers are signalling their readiness to get back on the ice of federal politics. But, of course, they will play tough. They will complain about not having enough ice time. They will criticize the referee's decisions. But that's just part of who we are - across Canada.
André Pratte is chief editorial writer at La Presse. He has just published a biography of Wilfrid Laurier, part of Penguin Books' Extraordinary Canadians series.