Bloc Québecois seeks to top its 2019 fortunes, at the Liberals' expense
Leader Yves-François Blanchet hopes to win 40 seats in his province
On the shores of a scenic marina near the Parc National de la Mauricie, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet clambered up a steep mound, finding purchase on some rocks to chat up diners at a restaurant patio.
His candidate in the St-Maurice–Champlain riding, Jacynthe Bureau, stumbled as she followed suit.
"Oh, careful, I'm not allowed to give you my hand if you fall," he joked, pointing out his strict adherence to public health protocols.
But for a quick tour through Montreal's Pride parade hours before this evening stop on day one of the campaign, Blanchet has avoided large crowds, and he has made a point of drawing a contrast between himself and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on this and other positions.
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"I don't even do fist bumps," he often explained to the small clusters of supporters or local candidates who show up at his events.
"I don't go hugging people like they're my old university buddies."
But finding purchase with Quebec's notoriously fickle electorate can be a much more treacherous affair than steadying oneself on a hillock, and Blanchet spent his first week reaching into a grab-bag of issues to see what might work.
Tight ridings, past grievances
Though polls in the early days of this campaign have not indicated a breakthrough for the Bloc, Blanchet has been on the offensive.
He has said the party's goal is to reach 40 seats, a majority of those available in the province. That would keep the Liberals to a minority if they stay in government and, he said, allow greater negotiating power for his MPs representing Canada's second most-populous province.
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He largely hit ridings where Liberals held on with a razor-thin number of votes in 2019, when the sovereignist party surged to triple its seat count from a moribund 10, nearly written off by Quebec political observers.
But Blanchet accomplished that two years ago by mimicking the popular and populist Coalition Avenir Québec provincial government on a number of positions, including a vigorous defence of Bill 21, the controversial legislation that, in the name of secularism, bars public servants from wearing religious symbols, while civil society groups have targeted it in both protests and court challenges, saying it is discriminatory and contravenes Charter rights.
The Liberal government moved away from musing about challenging Bill 21 in court, though, and has made multiple funding announcements in Quebec leading up to this election, Trudeau appearing with Premier François Legault in several photo-ops, seemingly in a pre-emptive tug of war with Blanchet over Quebec defender credentials.
"An election is a very tough time to hide somebody and I am not of a very discrete nature," Blanchet said when asked about that strategy, adding that he would find his way to voters.
So far, that has meant attacking Trudeau on seniors' issues in Quebec City and its suburban ridings, health care transfers to provinces in front of an emergency room in Gatineau, or the Liberals' environmental record in Longueuil on Montreal's South Shore.
None of these criticisms are particularly new, rehashing much of what the Bloc has said over the past two years of a minority Parliament.
"Right now the question is for the Bloc, what will be the big issue that they will use against the Liberals," said Daniel Béland, political scientist and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
"This time around I'm not sure they have as strong a hammer to hit the Liberals."
Liberals' hammers out, too
Unlike the early days of the 2019 campaign, the Liberals are paying close attention to the Bloc's manoeuvres.
Last week, after the Bloc attacked Trudeau for offering only top-ups to old-age security payments for seniors who are over 75, the Grits' Québec incumbent, Jean-Yves Duclos, went after one of Blanchet's candidates for opinion pieces published a half-decade ago, in which Jean-Denis Garon advocated pushing retirement age back by two years and increasing taxes on seniors who got older as they used a higher share of services.
"It was a debate happening in Quebec society at the time," Garon said in defence of the pieces he had written.
Liberal incumbent Steven Guilbault tweeted about Blanchet's own past record as environment minister in a minority Parti Québécois provincial government, pointing out he had approved exploratory permits for off-shore drilling in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
WATCH | Bloc Québécois unveils election platform:
"I never believed for a second there was a potential for profitability," Blanchet said of the project, which did not happen in the end. "I'm very happy Quebec never went into fossil fuels."
The Bloc has also faced questions about minimizing its ultimate raison-d'être, an independent Quebec. The word 'independence' does not appear in their platform, unveiled Sunday.
"Each of the elements of our program contributes to the idea of independence," he said, while acknowledging that there has been no surge of sovereignist representation at the National Assembly. "We can't invent a context," he said.
A parallel campaign that may yet come into focus
Issues that have been the subject of skirmishes between parties in different parts of the country have yet to become flashpoints in Quebec. On the Liberals' plans for mandatory vaccinations for federal public-sector workers, Blanchet says he wants everyone vaccinated, but he does not believe Trudeau has the right to force employees to do so.
On the plight of those fleeing Afghanistan, Blanchet says Ottawa should do its utmost to help them and refuse to recognize a Taliban government.
But the Bloc leader may yet have a reprise of the flashpoint that brought such wind to his sails in 2019.
In April, a Quebec Superior Court ruling upheld Bill 21, except for members of the National Assembly or English-language school boards. Unhappy with those exemptions, the provincial government filed appeal papers in June. It is unclear when it will return to court, but that could be while this campaign is still going on.
The Bloc's own platform name-checks Bill 21 as it says it will push against federal public funding for legal challenges to Quebec-based legislation.
And in Papineau, Trudeau's riding, the Bloc is running a prominent Quebec comedian, Nabila Ben Youssef, who has partly made a name for herself denouncing religious fundamentalism, also speaking out against wearing veils.
Blanchet denied that that particular candidacy has anything to do with baiting Trudeau.
"This woman is an artist of great talent with strong opinions, and they seem to fit pretty well with what a lot of people in Quebec believe," he said.
The question now is whether those beliefs will be tested at the polls again.
- This story has been updated from a previous version that said Nabila Ben Youssef is a Muslim comedian. In fact, Youssef told a Montreal radio station Monday that she is not Muslim.Aug 23, 2021 5:00 PM ET