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Canada Bloc Québécois Leader Martine Ouellet’s rule is a tragic Shakespearean mashup

Bloc Quebecois Leader Martine Ouellet salutes supporters during a rally in Montreal in 2017. Ms. Ouellet is not indecisive like Hamlet, and is more like Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince who, in Hamlet, wages war ‘even for an eggshell.’

Paul Chiasson

Quebec has a robust tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s plays to reflect partisan views of the province’s place in Canada. Bloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet is the latest performer to continue a trend that started in 1968 with dramatist Robert Gurik’s Hamlet, Prince du Québec, in which the prince began his soliloquy: “Être ou ne pas être libre?”

That question doesn’t trouble Ms. Ouellet. During her year as leader, she has driven hard to make Quebec independence the Bloc’s pressing, primary concern. Nor is she indecisive like Hamlet. She stayed true to her course even as seven of her 10 MPs quit the BQ caucus and, this week, declared themselves ready to form a new party.

Ms. Ouellet is more like Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince who, in Hamlet, wages war “even for an eggshell.” She would have her MPs – now down to three, with one wavering – battle over the eggshell of independence in every field on every occasion. As Fortinbras’s captain admits to Hamlet, “We go to gain a little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name.” We know exactly what the name is: Ms. Ouellet’s platform for the next federal election includes her draft constitution for the independent Republic of Quebec.

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Her critics include fellow sovereigntists Gilles Duceppe – her predecessor as Bloc leader – and former PQ premier Bernard Landry, both nonplussed by her disdain for compromise and consensus. At a recent party convention in Drummondville, she lashed out at them and the defecting MPs, the way King Lear assails his unfaithful daughters. What ungrateful fools these dissenting pols were, as Lear would say, “to come between our sentence and our power, which nor our nature nor our place can bear.” In a more modern key, the leader also accused them of spreading fake news, before saying it wasn’t too late for them to crawl back into the fold.

Ms. Ouellet’s leadership will come up for review in June, along with a referendum among party members on her assertion that the Bloc should always and everywhere agitate for independence. But while she agrees that “the people must have their voices,” as Coriolanus is told in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, she doesn’t value those voices much. Her declared threshhold for victory on the leadership question is a mere 51 per cent. She’s content to soldier on with 49 per cent of her party opposing her – just as Coriolanus, once he becomes ruler, says fie on keeping favour among the broad mass of the people.

It’s worth remembering that no Bloc members voted in their current leader, who was acclaimed last year when no one else could muster the signatures needed to become a candidate. Also worth remembering: Joe Clark’s threshold for victory in his 1983 review as Progressive Conservative leader was 75 per cent (he quit after getting only 66.9).

Beyond the sound and fury, Ms. Ouellet has succeeded in foregrounding the question that has haunted the Bloc since the failure of the 1995 independence referendum. Is the party’s goal independence, or just a better deal for Quebec? The Bloc once profited from this ambiguity, which Ms. Ouellet is determined to end, apparently at any cost.

“The Bloc is not a dinosaur, it’s a phoenix,” she said last year after becoming party leader. She’s now burning it down, no doubt looking toward the day when the magical rise-from-the-ashes begins.

She won’t listen to friendly critics, so it may not matter that Shakespeare also has some words of warning. Lear’s daughter Regan, speaking of “willful men,” says “the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters.” Hamlet, watching Fortinbras’s troops march to battle, muses on their crazy-brave campaign “for a plot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, which is not tomb enough and continent to hide the slain.”

No one’s going to be killed during Ms. Ouellet’s fight to the finish, but the plot is indeed small, and the numbers diminishing by the day. The Bloc’s draw among Quebec voters plummetted from nearly 50 per cent and 54 Commons seats in the 2004 election, to less than 20 per cent and 10 seats in 2015. The pre-Ouellet caucus wasn’t enough for official party status in Parliament; the current one couldn’t play a hand of bridge.

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The end of this tragedy looks like ruin for both Ms. Ouellet and her party. The kingdom is failing; time for this bold and reckless leader to search for a horse.

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