Bloc Québécois hopes to make gains in federal election — but analysts say it won't be easy

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet insists his recent travels in Quebec have nothing to do with Sunday's federal election call but says he and the party are ready.

Bloc had a very good election in 2019, but pandemic may present new obstacles

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet says that while he's opposed to holding a federal election during the pandemic — calling it 'irresponsible' — he is more than ready to campaign. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC )
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As Quebec started to lift pandemic restrictions and festivals across the province resumed, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet took the opportunity to go on a tour of his own.

Blanchet has been travelling Quebec from region to region all summer in what he calls his Zone Bleu tour — a reference to the Bloc's campaign colour and the colour codes Quebec's provincial government has used for pandemic restrictions. 

He has insisted that this tour is in no way part of a political campaign and has said repeatedly that the party and its supporters are vehemently opposed to holding a federal election in the middle of a global pandemic.

Speaking to reporters in Montreal on Sunday at the launch of his campaign for a Sept. 20 federal election, Blanchet said the decision to call an election is "irresponsible," accusing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of acting in his own self interest. 

"I don't have the feeling that Trudeau is writing a page of history but a page of his own biography," Blanchet said.

"If the situation is serious enough to impose compulsory vaccination, isn't it too dangerous to go on an election campaign?" he argued, referring to Trudeau's recent decision to require all Liberal candidates running in the election to be fully vaccinated.

Still, Blanchet maintains that he is more than ready to campaign.

"Our funding is about three times what it was for the last election," the BQ leader said during a tour stop in Montreal earlier this month.

Blanchet spent the summer visiting regions across Quebec, aiming to appeal to small business owners and workers. (Martin Guindon/Radio-Canada)

But the Bloc has appeared unprepared when it comes to having candidates lined up. There has been grumbling about candidates in some ridings being appointed without a nomination meeting and a vote.

In Terrebonne, the party bumped the incumbent, Michel Boudrias, in favour of a new face — economist Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné.

Some party members wrote an open letter protesting the move in Terrebonne and even went so far as to call on Bloc voters to boycott the federal election.

Blanchet defended his decision to suspend nomination meetings this month, saying he followed the party's regulations closely.

"It's a situation I'm not comfortable with either but we have no other choice but to prepare for a possible election," he said.

Blanchet said that, this time around, he doesn't want people to think of the Bloc as the party that managed to come back from the dead in the last election.

Instead, he is asking voters to focus on all the party has managed to accomplish over the last year.

"Without the Bloquistes, there would be no recognition of the Quebec nation. Without the Bloquistes, there would be no progress for the French language," Blanchet said while on another tour stop in Quebec City last month. "Without the Bloquistes, there would be no protection for the aluminum industry."

The Bloc surprised many with a resurgence in the last election, snagging 32 seats in the province  — just three fewer than the Liberal Party.

"Overall, what Blanchet said and did is that he explicitly pushed aside sovereignty," said Daniel Béland, a McGill University political scientist and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. 

Some say the popularity of Quebec Premier François Legault, right, shown with Blanchet, played a large role in the Bloc's success in the last election. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

"[He focused] on basically defending the policies that François Legault was promoting in Quebec City at the National Assembly." 

The Bloc's position against the federal government meddling in the province's secularism law, known as Bill 21, played a key role in its improved performance in 2019, Béland said. 

Bloc Québécois MP and deputy House leader Christine Normandin has a different view of the party's last campaign. She said independence from the rest of the country is, and always has been, at the forefront of the party's goals.

"It's within the different issues that we challenge, that we speak about independence. It's always there," said Normandin.

Pandemic could be obstacle for Bloc, analysts say

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, seated at centre, and Legault speak with a family prior to making a child-care funding announcement in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

But while Blanchet managed to benefit from Legault's popularity during the last election, some analysts are not so sure the premier's influence will have the same effect this time around.

"[The Bloc] certainly has some good cards to play, but the pandemic actually really has been quite good for the [federal] Liberals in Quebec in terms of popular support," said Béland.

"The bad news for the Bloc is that in recent months, Trudeau and Legault have been seen in public quite a few times. They call each other by their first names.... And of course, the feds have also spent quite a bit of money in Quebec in recent months."

CBC's latest poll tracker data also suggest that strategy could be working for the Trudeau government. The latest polling averages have Trudeau at 36.6 per cent in the province and the Bloc at 28.6.

Eric Montigny, political science professor at Université Laval, said the pandemic also adds a layer of uncertainty to the race.

"It's still too soon to see what will resonate in the context of a pandemic and an election in a pandemic could bring many surprises," Montigny said.  

Economic recovery an important issue, Bloc says

The province's economic recovery post-pandemic has been at the forefront of the Bloc's tour speeches. In Montreal, Blanchet aimed to appeal to the small business owners in the east end of the city.

In other parts of the province, Blanchet stressed he would be there to ensure the regions emerge unscathed from the pandemic, and to help find solutions to the province's ongoing labour shortage.

"The labour shortage is definitely something that we hear a lot about," Normandin told CBC News. "You need people to work in organizations and companies in order to have the economy restart." 

Normandin said the Bloc is pushing to make it easier for temporary foreign workers to fill some of those gaps on the job market. 

Bloc MP Christine Normandin says Quebec's independence is still at the forefront of the party's platform. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

She said the party is also pushing for the federal government to review its Canada recovery benefit offering. 

Earlier this month, the Quebec and federal governments reached a joint agreement that is expected to allow up to 20 per cent more temporary foreign workers into the province to work in low-wage jobs.

That agreement is also said to allow for up to 7,000 additional annual work permits for people to whom the Quebec government has issued a Certificat de sélection du Québec.

"I think we humbly demonstrated that the more Bloc members we are, the better and louder the voices of Quebecers were carried in Parliament," Blanchet said. "I think we can increase the number of people even more." 

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