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Marie Chantal Scholl, looks up at Bloc Quebecois headquarters in Montreal, May 2, 2011. Scholl, a previous Bloc voter (she voted Rhino this time) came by Gilles Duceppe's office hoping to pay her respects to him. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Marie Chantal Scholl, looks up at Bloc Quebecois headquarters in Montreal, May 2, 2011. Scholl, a previous Bloc voter (she voted Rhino this time) came by Gilles Duceppe's office hoping to pay her respects to him. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Analysis

Quebec's flirtation with the NDP is just a test Add to ...

Yes, to a federalist party, but not necessarily to federalism.

Quebec's sudden embrace of the NDP and the virtual obliteration of the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois marks a milestone in the evolution of the province's relationship with the rest of Canada.

And yet it's far from clear this willingness to work from within is anything more than a desire to try something different - much as one might switch car makers or cellphone providers. Quebec's flirtation with the NDP could just as easily wane before the next trip to the polls.

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"It's not a love affair with the NDP," agreed François Majeur, explaining his vote for the party's star candidate, Thomas Mulcair, in the Montreal riding of Outremont. "It's a test. They're going to have to prove themselves."

Like many Quebeckers, the University of Montreal computer science professor describes himself as an "indépendantiste" who still "wants to see Canada work."

"We used to have no power in Ottawa but a bunch of people yelling for us," he said, referring to the Bloc Québécois claim to always stand up for Quebec's interests. "Now we have no power and no yellers. We'll have to see."

For the first time in nearly a quarter century, French Quebeckers are giving a chance to a federalist party. But it's still clearly a protest vote because the orange wave was never going to swamp Ottawa, remarked Pierre Anctil, a history professor at the University of Ottawa.

"Quebeckers have moved from one form of opposition to another," Prof. Anctil argued. "They are more interested in participating [in the federal system]than before. But they chose a party that has never been in power, and therefore never caused Quebec any grievances. It's not the party that was responsible for repatriating the Constitution, or the sponsorship scandal. There are no skeletons in the closet."

On the streets of Montreal Tuesday, hope mixed with incredulity at the breadth of the electoral upheaval. Few voters were ready to declare themselves federalists, but they agreed that the Bloc had passed its useful shelf life.

The Bloc had either been a protest vote or a vehicle for their sovereigntist aspirations. But on Monday, a yearning to try something new translated into its virtual demise. The Bloc was reduced to just four seats from 49. The NDP went from one to 58, or more than half the party's seats across the country.

The NDP steamroller even reached Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, who was defeated in his central Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie by his NDP rival by nearly 5,400 votes.

He even lost long-time supporters like Francine Hould. A 63-year-old retired secretary, Ms. Hould is a lifelong separatist who voted Yes in both referendums, campaigned for the Parti Québécois, and helped re-elect Mr. Duceppe at every election since 1990. Not this time.

"It got to the point I couldn't look at him any more," she said. "I got tired of hearing him whine and yell. He had no power. He couldn't have power."

"The Bloc became useless. Period. They lost their raison d'être." Ms. Hould said she no longer believes in sovereignty and on Monday she voted for Stephen Harper.

A lacklustre campaign by the Bloc, whose best effort for a slogan was "Let's Talk Quebec," also drove erstwhile supporters into the arms of the NDP. Most voters who did so invoked a desire for change and a taste for the NDP's social-democratic platform.

"We got tired of hearing the same old record. We wanted a winner, someone who wants to push things and do things," carpenter Charles Leclaire, 57, said at a public market in the riding, which mixes working-class voters with young professionals in the riding's bohemian Plateau-Mont-Royal.

"Jack," he said, using Quebeckers' affectionate way of identifying Mr. Layton, "is a winner."

(You would never hear a Quebecker use the names Stephen, Michael or even Gilles to identify the other federal party leaders.)

In NDP Leader Layton, they found a soulmate - a leader who seemed to offer a Bloc-like message of social justice, along with the bonus of a possible new relationship with the rest of Canada. He opened the campaign with a vague pledge to find a new place for Quebec within Canada.

The Bloc is almost certainly a spent force, experts said, deprived of their leader and reduced to just four seats. But University of Montreal political scientist Pierre Martin said its long reign has left a lasting legacy - a detachment from federal politics.

"They [voters]don't have firm roots, and they're ready to blow with the wind," Prof. Martin said.

So it would be a mistake to look too closely at what motivated the massive shift in sentiment across the province.

"People are saying: 'let's give the NDP a chance. We have no reason not to,'" he explained. "But there's a certain superficiality to their choice."

Prof. Anctil cautioned that the NDP's Quebec mandate also comes with a heavy burden.

"The Quebec question is inside the party now, instead of being outside," he said. "The NDP has been hijacked by Quebec to do something it might not be prepared to do, or even thought about, which is to bring Quebec into the Constitution."

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