The Bloc Québécois is back.
Perhaps not in the way that it dominated federal politics in Quebec for nearly two decades between 1993 and 2011. But the sovereigntist party that not long ago seemed headed for the dust heap seems to have regained enough strength to play the spoiler in the Oct. 21 election.
In a province known for switching sides on a dime, the Bloc’s comeback was evident both during and after Wednesday’s French-language debate on Quebec’s TVA network. Leader Yves-François Blanchet, who had been systematically ignored by his rivals since he took the reins of the nearly lifeless Bloc in January, was forced onto the defensive for the first time during this campaign – although he generally gave better than he got.
That could be a problem for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. They are fighting for the same swing voters as the Bloc in dozens of Quebec’s 78 ridings. A Bloc resurgence could deprive either of its main rivals of the seats needed to form a majority government. And it could wipe the New Democratic Party, which held 14 Quebec seats when Parliament was dissolved, off the electoral map in the province.
Mr. Blanchet is asking for a mandate from Quebeckers to hold whichever of the two main parties wins the most seats on Oct. 21 to a minority government. Just like in the good old days, when the Bloc leveraged its heft in Parliament to extract concessions from former prime minister Stephen Harper, who led minority governments between 2006 and 2011.
That was when Mr. Harper’s Tories adopted a House of Commons resolution recognizing that the “Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” Mr. Harper also moved to settle what was dubbed the “fiscal imbalance” that had left Ottawa swimming in budget surpluses while Quebec struggled to balance the books. Mr. Harper rejigged the equalization formula in 2007, resulting in hundreds of millions more in annual federal cash transfers to Quebec.
It’s a matter of some debate whether Mr. Harper’s moves were the result of pressure from the Bloc, or simply part of his own bid to court Quebec voters and lend a hand to then-premier Jean Charest, whose Liberals faced a stiff re-election battle in 2007. But Mr. Blanchet makes a credible case that the Bloc’s presence in Ottawa helped to concentrate Mr. Harper’s mind.
The 54-year-old Mr. Blanchet, a former music-industry agent, is attempting to hitch his sovereigntist party’s wagon to that of Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, which is riding higher than ever in the polls a year into its mandate. His full-throated defence of Bill 21, the Legault government’s secularism law, distinguishes him from the other federal leaders, who all oppose the legislation to varying degrees. And Mr. Blanchet never misses a chance to point out that the Bloc is the only federal party that endorses each of Mr. Legault’s four main demands in this federal election. A bigger Bloc caucus in Ottawa would, in Mr. Blanchet’s telling, help hold the next federal government’s feet to the fire.
Whether Quebeckers buy that message in large enough numbers remains to be seen. Judging by their postdebate attacks on Mr. Blanchet, the other leaders are worried enough about that possibility to turn their fire on a rival they had ignored until now.
On Thursday morning, Mr. Trudeau reprised an attack line from the debate with a tweet reminding voters that Mr. Blanchet served as environment minister in a short-lived Parti Québécois government that approved oil exploration on pristine Anticosti Island and the construction of a giant cement plant on the Gaspé peninsula that is Quebec’s largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases. Those decisions could haunt Mr. Blanchet during the rest of the campaign, undermining his attempts to paint Mr. Trudeau as an environmental hypocrite for overseeing the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Fluent in French, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Blanchet had the field mostly to themselves on Wednesday night, leaving Mr. Scheer at a clear disadvantage. The Conservative Leader often fails to enunciate his words in English; he outright swallows his speech in French. His sentences were often indecipherable during the TVA debate.
That, however, may not be Mr. Scheer’s biggest problem in Quebec. He made a potentially fatal mistake during the debate by failing to reassure Quebeckers that he will not let his personal views on abortion influence how he governs. Instead, he refused even to acknowledge his personal opposition to abortion, allowing Mr. Blanchet and Mr. Trudeau to make it an issue. He tried to course-correct on Thursday, but the damage may have been done.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was the most likeable and good-humoured of the debaters. But he’s not really even in this race in Quebec. The province that made the NDP Canada’s official opposition in 2011 has changed its mind again. It’s just not sure how, yet.