When Bloc Québécois MP Jean-Francois Fortin quit the party this week to sit as an independent, Bloc Leader Mario Beaulieu opened up an ugly little internal drama.
The whole mess showed how far the party has come from its real decades-long function: to be a solid sovereigntist institution. Now it's a fractious faction.
Mr. Fortin left with a blast at Mr. Beaulieu for radicalizing the Bloc, making it the party of independence hardliners. Mr. Beaulieu responded by calling Mr. Fortin a disloyal egotist who put himself before the cause, and revealed that the MP toyed with the idea of creating his own party.
Mr. Beaulieu's message was that he's not a radical, that he supports the same old Bloc program, and will just change the strategy – namely he'll make the party advocate harder for Quebec independence, faster. But that alone means big change to the Bloc's basic function, in the real world.
The Bloc wasn't a political vehicle to bring Quebec to sovereignty. It wasn't the vanguard. After its first few years, it was a sovereigntist institution. Its function was to take up space on the political scene, to provide a second stage for sovereigntist figures, and to collect money and provide jobs for the movement's operatives.
To do that, it needed to be a broad party. Luckily, unlike the Parti Québécois in Quebec City, Bloc members were unburdened by the need to govern. They could bring together hardline independentistes, soft sovereigntists who'd want some partnership with Canada, uncertain nationalists who wouldn't vote for the PQ, and voters who weren't excited by other parties.
That made it easier to get broad support beyond committed sovereigntists, even when support for sovereignty ebbed. From 1993 to 2011, the party elected so many MPs that no federalist party could really claim to represent Quebeckers. It also meant dozens of high-profile spokespersons for sovereignty. It meant money – for a long time, mostly from a government subsidy the party received for every vote it garnered. And that helped build an organization and provide jobs for supporters.
Now, it's hard to fault Mr. Beaulieu on principle for his new approach. A sovereigntist party should, it seems obvious, promote sovereignty, clearly, without reservation. It is frank and direct, designed to convince people to support Quebec sovereignty rather than lure people to vote for the party with a soft sell. That by itself isn't radical. But it's hampered by the fact that Quebeckers know voting for the Bloc in Ottawa won't make Quebec independent.
As an institution-builder, Mr. Beaulieu has already scared folks off. On the night he was elected leader, he alarmed people like former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe when he mouthed the chant of supporters, Nous Vaincrons, because it was an old FLQ slogan. He lambasted past Bloc leaders for their wait-and-see approach to sovereignty, riling big parts of his team. Several former Bloc MPs said they were dropping plans to run in the next election. Support in polls remains low.
Money? The Bloc's financial statements show its revenues are small and shrinking, because the per-vote subsidy for parties is being phased out. It will more or less have to blow its savings on the next election – unless Mr. Beaulieu's new strategy suddenly motivates donors.
And Mr. Fortin's departure underlines, again, just how far the Bloc has fallen. Now that he's gone, the Bloc has three MPs. Luc Plamondon was a day-one Bloc MP first elected as a Tory in 1984 and is now 71. André Bellavance was beaten by Mr. Beaulieu in a bitter leadership race. Claude Patry was elected as a New Democrat in 2011, but switched to the Bloc in February. Not exactly a solid institutional bulwark.
The manner of Mr. Fortin's departure will hardly bolster Bloc credibility. Mr. Beaulieu's squabbling response made for drama that doesn't make the Bloc look professional. By revealing Mr. Fortin's flirtation with forming a new party, he didn't just accuse him of disloyalty, he underlined that some want a Bloc Classique, because Mr. Beaulieu's not their flavour. At its heart, what's radical about Mr. Beaulieu's strategy is that he doesn't see the value of the Bloc's old institutional function. His primary goal isn't to make the Bloc the biggest tent possible again. So far, he's succeeding.