Montreal

Big gains for the Bloc Québécois, but what did it sacrifice in the process?

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet had a fairly easy run of it during the campaign. Now with a caucus of 32 MPs and the expectations of 1.4 million voters, things are about to get significantly more difficult for the untested leader.

Blanchet made a bargain to ensure his party's success: give up promise of sovereignty, talk about nationalism

Yves-François Blanchet was all smiles after seeing his party rebound in Monday's federal election. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, by most accounts, had an easy run of it during the campaign.

On Day One, he got a nudge from Premier François Legault, who made sure Quebec's controversial religious symbols law, known as Bill 21, became a federal issue.

As the other leaders tried to hammer out coherent positions, Blanchet cast his party as the one sturdy bulwark against perceived federal meddling with the secularism law, which is popular in Quebec.

Then he hopped on his bus and toured the province a few times. He got on his message track and never really broke from it.

The message had a few variations, but basically it was: "Hey Quebecers, we're like you, and we're the only ones you can trust to have your back."

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Add three confident debate performances, two unpopular national leaders and scant references to sovereignty, and voilà!  You've got a comeback for the ages. 

Now with a caucus of 32 MPs and the expectations of 1.4 million Quebecers, things are about to get significantly more difficult for Blanchet.

And as it gets down to doing things, the Bloc will have to confront some existential questions.  

Heading toward a new identity   

The Bloc owed its earliest success, of course, to the failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords and the corresponding rise in support for Quebec sovereignty. 

But even as support for independence faltered after 1995 and founder Lucien Bouchard left the party he founded to become Quebec's premier, the Bloc remained a major presence in the House of Commons.

Though Bouchard and many of the original party members were former Tories, the party began to identify more openly with the left under Gilles Duceppe.

Bloc Québécois supporters in Montreal celebrate after a strong showing. The party was on pace to win 32 seats, up from 10 at dissolution. (Charles Contant/CBC)

But if the two pillars of the Bloc's identity have been sovereignty and social democratic values, those pillars were far from the foundation of the party's success in this campaign.

Blanchet aligned his party with the Coalition Avenir Québec, the nationalist centre-right provincial party that swept to power for the first time last year.

In his speech to supporters in Montreal, Blanchet implicitly acknowledged the bargain he struck to ensure the Bloc's revival: shelve talk of sovereignty and trade it for the more palatable rhetoric of nationalism.

"We understand the depth of our mandate, but we also understand its limitations," he said. "This time, for this time, the realization of sovereignty is not our mandate."

Instead, Blanchet pledged to be the voice of the "consensus" in Quebec's legislature, the National Assembly.

Leaving the left behind?

By hewing to the CAQ, the Bloc will also have its commitment to social democratic values challenged.

Blanchet spent the campaign insisting the Bloc is a progressive party. But it's not clear how it can be that while also serving as the voice of a legislature dominated by a party devoted to tax cuts, trimming the civil service and lowering immigration levels.

The challenge will be particularly acute when it comes to the environment — a major plank of the Bloc's platform.

Opposing a cross-country oil pipeline that would go through Quebec was a no-brainer for Blanchet; it has little support anywhere in the province, including within the ranks of the CAQ government.

But Blanchet avoided taking such a firm position on other environmentally dubious projects — such as the natural gas project in the Saguenay which the CAQ supports.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, right, shakes hands with former Quebec premier and Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau in 2000. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Blanchet's commitment to environmental protection could soon find itself in conflict with Legault's desire to wean the province off equalization payments as quickly as possible. 

And then there is the identity question.

The Bill 21 issue almost certainly contributed to the Bloc's gains. But it also committed the Bloc to advocating a conception of nationalism that is at odds with many left-wing parties in 2019.

In its slogans — "Quebec is us," choose politicians "who are like you" — the party conveyed a narrower conception of Quebec identity than it has in the past.

And when the Journal de Montréal exposed four candidates for having made Islamophobic comments, Blanchet's decision to keep those candidates on despite their remarks was widely condemned, even by pundits normally sympathetic to the party. 

The Bloc Québécois was the only party in the federal campaign to support Quebec's Bill 21, the controversial law that bans some civil servants from wearing religious symbols. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

One of those candidates — Valérie Tremblay in Chicoutimi–Le Fjord — was narrowly defeated on Monday by the Conservative incumbent Richard Martel.

There is no question that Blanchet led his party to impressive gains. But some might wonder whether he may have sacrificed the soul of the party in the process.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that Bloc Québécois candidate Valérie Tremblay won in Chicoutimi–Le Fjord. In fact, final results showed she came in second to Richard Martel of the Conservative Party.
    Oct 22, 2019 8:30 AM ET

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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