The revival of the Bloc Québécois may mark the return of a loud Quebec advocate to Parliament, but there is no indication separatism is also on the rise.
The Bloc under rookie leader Yves-François Blanchet appears poised to take Quebec seats from Liberals, New Democrats and Conservatives alike on Monday, returning from rump status to a major player in the House of Commons.
Despite the rise in popularity of the separatist party, Quebec independence remains deeply unpopular, both in polls and as reflected in recent provincial elections. The Quebec vote just one year ago left the main political vehicle for separatism – the Parti Québécois – a leaderless third party.
While the Bloc still supports independence, as it did when it dominated the Quebec federal electoral map from 1993 to 2011, it did so quietly in this election campaign. The party rose instead on Mr. Blanchet’s steady leadership and communication skills. It also rode the coattails of the provincial Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) and popular Premier Francois Legault, the right-leaning nationalists who eschew seeking independence but demand autonomy.
“Quebeckers want a strong Quebec nationalism, within Canada," said pollster Jean-Marc Léger, whose firm covers Quebec intensively. "They want to stay in Canada, but they do not want to be told what to do. The rise of the Bloc is not the rise of sovereignty. It is really the extension of the CAQ victory from last year.”
If projections of a minority government prove true on Monday, Mr. Blanchet said he will promote Quebec’s interests, but not block Canadian progress. “If it’s good for Quebec, we’ll vote for; if it’s bad for Quebec, we’ll vote against; and in between, we’ll negotiate,” Mr. Blanchet said at a campaign stop in Montreal on Thursday. “We can have very cordial relations. If Canadians and Quebeckers send a mosaic to Parliament, maybe it’s what they want. Maybe they want that kind of collaboration.”
Mr. Blanchet said he intends to push for compensation for dairy producers for losses stemming from the latest trade agreement with the United States and Mexico, and better pensions for seniors. He would stand against any new oil pipeline across Quebec. “We will not be at the service of any particular political movement,” Mr. Blanchet said. “We are not an instrument or accessory of one group or the other.”
The brand of nationalism emerging in Quebec returns to a long history that predated the independence movement, to the days of the Union Nationale. Political scientists Éric Bélanger and Richard Nadeau, specialists in voting behaviour, presaged the development in a book on stateless nationalism last year, in which they described a continuing desire in Quebec for forcefully promoting the province’s interests and affirming its identity, while promoting independence has faded badly. “Gaining more power for Quebec is the most popular position, not status quo nor independence,” they wrote. They predicted “some kind of reconfiguration of the Quebec party system.”
Six months after the publication of the book, The National Question and Electoral Politics in Quebec and Scotland, the CAQ won a provincial election for the first time, and now the Bloc is poised for recovery.
Dominic Vallières, a Bloc and PQ adviser from 2011 to 2018, said the main national parties were not shy about straying into areas many Quebeckers believe they should control. “This election shows that while Quebec isn’t ready for independence, it’s not ready to give an inch on managing its own priorities, either,” he said.
From Quebec’s secularism law, to pipeline opposition, to demands for additional power in immigration, language and taxation, Mr. Blanchet’s campaign message was clear: Ottawa should get out of the way. The leaders of the big federal parties had to try to take positions workable in the rest of Canada.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he was against Quebec’s secularism law known as Bill 21, but refused to say a re-elected Liberal government would join court challenges. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he is personally against abortion, but promised not to reopen the debate.
The national leaders delivered these messages in French of uneven quality, while Mr. Blanchet used refined language, and did not need to deal with divided regional interests. “He came across as authentic in a way Mr. Scheer and Mr. Trudeau did not,” Mr. Léger said.
And when Mr. Blanchet’s positions clashed with prior beliefs (he was once against religious dress codes and in favour of oil exploitation) he was rarely questioned.
Mr. Blanchet, a 54-year-old native of Drummondville, Que., had a career managing musicians – mainly Quebec rocker Éric Lapointe – before winning a PQ seat provincially in 2008. Friends and adversaries have described him as occasionally arrogant and abrasive. He was known as “the goon” for his fierce defence of PQ leader Pauline Marois during a challenge to her leadership in 2011. His media appearances in the National Assembly were filled with long sermons and frequent clashes with reporters who, he admits, knew how to push his buttons.
Mr. Blanchet was defeated in the 2014 election. In 2016, he joined a daily Radio-Canada political television program called Le Club des Ex, in which gave him a lot of experience in both debating and maintaining collegial relations.
Meanwhile, the Bloc Québécois, decimated by Jack Layton’s NDP in 2011, was a rump of 10 seats after the Trudeau Liberal victory in 2015.
The Bloc churned through eight acting or permanent leaders since 2011, culminating in a caucus revolt under Martine Ouellet last year that led to seven of the 10 Bloc MPs leaving the party. Mr. Blanchet was handed the reins in January, a moment he described this week as one of “humility and modesty.”
The key turning point for Mr. Blanchet came during the first French-language debate, on the TVA network on Oct. 2, his first time on a truly national stage. “It was a moment where we could speak directly to hundreds of thousands, even a million Quebeckers,” Mr. Blanchet said. “That was major.” After the debate, Mr. Blanchet said his partner, Nancy Déziel, reminded him beforehand to stay humble. “I always remind myself to stay humble, but I was never as bellicose as all that,” Mr. Blanchet said this week.
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