The Bloc Québécois has been cruising to a comeback, but now faces big debate test

The Bloc Québécois seems to have managed to coast on the heels of a popular provincial government so far this campaign. But a French-language leaders' debate on Wednesday could provide some more scrutiny of the sovereigntist party's comeback effort.

Sovereigntist party's campaign has followed the path laid down by Quebec's popular provincial government

CBC's poll tracker puts the Bloc Québécois, led by Yves-François Blanchet, around 21 per cent support in the province, about the same as the Conservatives. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet surrounded himself on Monday with union leaders in Sept-Îles, Que., and appealed to the blue-collar workers of the northeastern iron town to help make his party kingmaker in the next Parliament.   

"Imagine the potential gains that would mean for the workers of Quebec," Blanchet said, outlining his hope of holding the balance of power should the election end with a minority government.

For most of the campaign, Blanchet has been closely following a path laid down by Quebec's centre-right provincial government, led by François Legault and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). 

To Legault's desire for fewer immigrants, a values test for newcomers and restrictions on religious symbols, Blanchet has said yes, yes and yes.

"The demands of the Quebec government are clear. They are legitimate and they are reasonable," Blanchet said. "We will be its voice." 

Quebec Premier François Legault, right, meeting with Blanchet in February. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Sure, it may lack originality, but there are signs the Bloc's platform is resonating with voters.

Whereas the Bloc's two main rivals in Quebec — the Liberals and Conservatives — have lost some support in the province since the election began, the Bloc's poll numbers have ticked upward.

CBC's poll tracker puts the party at around 21 per cent in the province, about the same as the Tories. And while that's still well behind the Liberals, who are polling around 35 per cent, this was a party that had been pronounced dead by many of its own members just a year ago.

Under the leadership of Martine Ouellet, seven of the party's 10 MPs quit the caucus; the end looked nigh for the sovereigntist party formed in 1991, following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord

Taking over from Ouellet seemed like a fool's errand. Blanchet, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister turned political pundit, was the only candidate in the race.

He quickly shepherded the erstwhile MPs back into the party and set about rebuilding its image. Gone now are the obituary-style headlines, replaced in recent days with more upbeat phrases: "The Bloc gaining ground in Quebec," "The Bloc unblocked," "The stars align for the Bloc," and "The Bloc's free ride."

But on Wednesday, Blanchet will take part in his first debate as leader of a federal political party.

He's about to find out how far he can ride the coattails of a popular provincial government.

All eyes on the new kid

From the outset of the federal election campaign, Blanchet aligned himself with Legault's CAQ government, which is still polling well a year into its mandate.

"We have a government that, for the first time in a longtime ... displays an unabashed nationalism," Blanchet said at his campaign kickoff speech. "I have to say it: that feels good."

Blanchet attended last Friday's climate change march in Montreal, as did Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The Bloc's long-standing partner at the provincial level is, of course, the Parti Québécois (PQ). So the Bloc's affection for this new party, the CAQ, which is not even sovereigntist, might appear, well, unfaithful.   

But Legault's nationalism won him a majority, while the sovereigntist PQ is now the smallest party in the provincial legislature.

And it was Legault's conservative nationalism that delivered Quebecers sweeping legislation limiting religious symbols in the civil service, in the face of opposition from federalists.

Asked to explain his popularity, Legault told the Journal de Montréal he was giving power back to Quebec's "historical majority." It is nationalism, not sovereignty, that is the safer bet in Quebec politics these days.

But there's competition on this front. The Conservatives are vying for the same CAQ voters the Bloc is courting.

At a recent campaign event, the Conservatives' Quebec lieutenant, Alain Rayes, sketched his view of the battleground.

There are few journalists travelling with Blanchet. His policy proposals have received a fraction of the scrutiny directed at those of the national parties. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

"In some parts of the province, the Liberals are our adversaries," Rayes said. "But we won't hide it, in the northern ring around Montreal, on the south shore [of Montreal] and in the centre of Quebec, it's the Bloc who is our adversary."

Like the CAQ, Rayes and his fellow Conservative MPs from the province are pitching themselves as nationalists. And their angle is to remind voters of the Bloc's sovereigntist outlook. 

"When we speak with people who voted for the CAQ, more than a majority have the tendency to align with the Conservative Party," Rayes said.

"These are people who decided to set aside the constitutional question, who are fed up with constitutional disputes."

Is this when the gloves come off?

Up to this point in the campaign, Blanchet has largely been able to avoid discussing sovereignty, or how he will implement his promises.

As several observers have pointed out, there are few journalists travelling with Blanchet, and his policy proposals have endured far less scrutiny than those of the national parties.

That free ride will likely come to an end on Wednesday, when Blanchet takes part, along with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, in a French-language debate hosted by TVA.

As Blanchet doesn't have a seat in Parliament, this will be the first time he will confront, and be confronted by, the other party leaders (he didn't take part in the Citytv/Maclean's debate).

TVA's unique debate format, which features one-on-one exchanges between the leaders, will only heighten the confrontational nature of the event.

Oh, and Blanchet's nickname while he was in provincial politics? Goon.

On the campaign trail, he's attracted the most attention when goading the other federal leaders into taking positions on Quebec's secularism law, Bill 21, which bans some civil servants, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols at work.

He even upped the ante last week by proposing that all federal services be delivered and received with an uncovered face, effectively an anti-niqab measure.

But Blanchet is on less sure footing when it comes to the other major theme of his campaign so far: the environment.

His policies closely mirror those of the CAQ government, itself no darling of the environmental movement. Blanchet's own history as Quebec environment minister — which included approving fracking and pipeline projects — is also starting to raise questions.

If his federalist rivals want to cut short the sweetheart story of the comeback kid, now is the time.


Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He will be a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College in 2021-2022.


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