Skip to main content
opinion

This year marks the 25th anniversary of a political earthquake whose aftershocks haunt Canada still.

The federal election of 1993 saw the Bloc Québécois under a fiery Lucien Bouchard form the Official Opposition in Ottawa. The Bloc consisted of a motley crew of secessionist rebels who united after two failed attempts at constitutional renewal revived the Quebec sovereignty movement. They had nothing in common but a grudge against Canada. And working with fellow sovereigntists in the Parti Québécois, they kept the whole country on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

But the Bloc thrived in spite of itself. As long as Bloc MPs kept winning elections, they could patch over their differences. And win they did. For more than 17 years, the Bloc dominated federal politics in the province, persuading francophone voters that its Quebec-first agenda in Parliament yielded big dividends.

Still, the Bloc might have reached its best-before date a decade earlier had Jean Chrétien's Liberals not tried to counter its success with a federalist propaganda program steeped in corruption.

The Bloc was always meant to become redundant some day. Its creators imagined that moment would come once Quebec took its seat at the United Nations. Quebec voters had other ideas, however, and the New Democratic Orange Wave of 2011 left the Bloc with only four MPs.

Since then, the party has not only been irrelevant, it's been a running joke. Its three leaders since the 2011 meltdown – not counting Gilles Duceppe, who returned briefly for the 2015 election – have all been retreads who couldn't get a job answering the phones in a major political party. The current leader, Martine Ouellet, ran twice for the PQ leadership before securing the Bloc gig last year thanks to hard-core members for whom all that matters is promoting sovereignty.

But unconditional sovereigntists are a threatened species in 2018. If the independence movement has any future at all, it must rebuild the rainbow coalition of conservative nationalists and progressive separatists that once made the PQ so formidable. The Bloc's implosion this week shows just how hard, if not impossible, that has become.

Ms. Ouellet is not only an unhyphenated separatist. She is far to the left of the seven MPs who quit the Bloc caucus on Wednesday. While her abrasive personality prompted their decision to slam the door when Ms. Ouellet refused to resign, they faced unreconciled differences with the Leader on more than sovereignty and how prominently it should figure in the Bloc's agenda.

The seven MPs who exited the Bloc all represent small-c conservative ridings where the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec already holds the seat provincially or is poised to do so after the October election. Any of these Bloc MPs would be at home in a Conservative caucus led by a francophone Quebecker or an effortlessly bilingual one such as Brian Mulroney. Indeed, Louis Plamondon was first elected as a Progressive Conservative MP under Mr. Mulroney in 1984.

The unstated motto of such soft nationalists has always been: Sovereignty if necessary, but not necessarily sovereignty. Hence, Tory Leader Andrew Scheer was quick to court the Bloc dissidents. "It's only the Conservative Party that can take on the Liberal Party, which is a centralizing party … And it's the Conservative Party that recognized Quebec as a nation."

What matters most, of course, is not whether any of these seven MPs joins the Tories (which seems unlikely) or reintegrates the Bloc caucus if Ms. Ouellet bows to the pressure she is under from influential sovereigntists, including Mr. Duceppe, to resign. It's the next election that matters. And without a star to replace her, the Bloc could face annihilation.

A December Léger Marketing poll pegged Bloc support in Quebec at 18 per cent, the same level as Mr. Scheer's Conservatives and six points higher than the NDP under new Leader Jagmeet Singh. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals, at 47 per cent, left them all in the dust.

But Mr. Trudeau's star has fallen significantly since then. And few analysts can imagine that many disaffected Bloc voters would switch to the Liberals in 2019. In most ridings outside Montreal, the Conservatives would likely benefit from a collapse in Bloc support. But the NDP, which has courted Quebec sovereigntists under Mr. Singh, could also win over Bloc voters on the left.

Lots of francophone Quebec ridings witnessed three- and even four-way races in 2015. Liberal hopes of making gains in 2019 were based on the twin factors of Mr. Trudeau's popularity and the continued fracturing of support among the opposition parties. Neither is a sure thing now.

The Liberals have always been the Bloc's nemesis. Ironically, its death would hurt Liberals most.