The new kids on the Bloc

National Post (National Edition) - - Front Page - MAURA FOR­REST

Last year, when the ma­jor­ity of Bloc Québé­cois MPs had quit in protest, it would have been hard to imag­ine the sovereign­tist party get­ting much at­ten­tion dur­ing the 2019 elec­tion. But that was then and this is now.

Now, af­ter what looked like a long slide into ir­rel­e­vance, the Bloc seems to be ris­ing from the ashes. Leader Yves-François Blanchet has per­formed well and polls show the party is ahead of the Con­ser­va­tives in Que­bec, be­hind only the Lib­er­als, and in first place among fran­co­phone vot­ers.

The Bloc Québé­cois has got­ten a boost from the prov­ince’s na­tion­al­ist CAQ govern­ment, which has is­sued a list of de­mands only the Bloc has fully en­dorsed. It’s also the only ma­jor party that sup­ports Que­bec’s con­tro­ver­sial sec­u­lar­ism law.

A year ago, when Que­bec elected its right-lean­ing CAQ govern­ment, it seemed the fed­eral Con­ser­va­tives stood to ben­e­fit.

The Tories have ap­pealed to na­tion­al­ist vot­ers by promis­ing to meet some of Que­bec Pre­mier François Le­gault’s de­mands for more au­ton­omy.

But the Con­ser­va­tives have strug­gled to sell leader An­drew Scheer’s pro­posed na­tional en­ergy cor­ri­dor, a non-starter in Que­bec. And so it looks in­creas­ingly like the Bloc could be headed for a come­back — Blanchet is hop­ing to dou­ble his seat count from 10 to 20.

Sens­ing a threat, Lib­eral leader Justin Trudeau has at­tempted to paint the Bloc as a relic. “Un­for­tu­nately, you, Mr. Blanchet, as a sovereign­tist, are only look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties to cre­ate fights be­tween Que­bec and the rest of Canada to ad­vance your sep­a­ratist agenda,” Trudeau said dur­ing Mon­day’s English-lan­guage de­bate, the first time many an­glo­phone Cana­di­ans would have heard from Blanchet. “Un­for­tu­nately, that’s not some­thing that Cana­di­ans want.”

Be that as it may, it seems this new in­car­na­tion of the Bloc Québé­cois is still say­ing some­thing many Que­be­cers want to hear.

Blanchet has tried to po­si­tion the Bloc as a re­ju­ve­nated party with ap­peal not just for the old guard of Que­bec sep­a­ratists but for young, pro­gres­sive vot­ers as well. He boasts that 63 of his can­di­dates for Que­bec’s 78 rid­ings have never held of­fice.

Mar­tin Cham­poux, the can­di­date in Drum­mond, is one of those new faces, a for­mer me­dia per­son­al­ity now en­ter­ing pol­i­tics. His rid­ing is a one-time Bloc strong­hold be­tween Mon­treal and Que­bec City that went NDP in 2011. This time, it looks to be a tight race be­tween the Lib­er­als, Con­ser­va­tives and Bloc Québé­cois.

“I think most Que­be­cers are na­tion­al­ist and that’s some­thing that’s go­ing to be im­por­tant in their choice this year,” Cham­poux said.

A po­lit­i­cal rookie, Cham­poux isn’t well-known in his rid­ing. Still, there’s clearly re­newed in­ter­est in the Bloc here. At a pub­lic mar­ket re­cently, a man ap­proached Cham­poux to say he’ll likely get his vote — he feels Blanchet has turned the party around. “The Bloc, it’s the party that most de­fends the in­ter­ests of Que­bec,” he said.

The Bloc’s big­gest hur­dle is the sense that its mo­ment has passed. The party vaulted into of­fi­cial Op­po­si­tion sta­tus in 1993 and re­mained an im­por­tant force in Par­lia­ment un­til 2011, when it was re­duced to just four seats by the Or­ange Wave, which saw the NDP sweep 59 rid­ings un­der for­mer leader Jack Lay­ton.

Since then, the party has strug­gled to find its foot­ing as in­ter­est in Que­bec in­de­pen­dence has waned. In Fe­bru­ary 2018, un­der for­mer leader Mar­tine Ouel­let, seven of 10 Bloc MPs quit the caucus, cit­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with Ouel­let’s un­wa­ver­ing fo­cus on sep­a­ra­tion. They re­joined the party af­ter she an­nounced her res­ig­na­tion.

Blanchet, whose bid for the lead­er­ship went un­con­tested in Jan­uary, is more of a prag­ma­tist than Ouel­let, with no im­me­di­ate plans to start push­ing for a ref­er­en­dum, said Guy Lachapelle, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity in Mon­treal.

Un­der Blanchet, a for­mer Parti Québé­cois cab­i­net min­is­ter and po­lit­i­cal pun­dit, the Bloc has openly aligned it­self with Le­gault’s CAQ govern­ment. The con­nec­tion marks an im­por­tant shift for a party tra­di­tion­ally tied to the sovereign­tist Parti Québé­cois — though the CAQ is de­cid­edly na­tion­al­ist, it’s not call­ing for in­de­pen­dence.

“The Bloc Québé­cois is sovereign­tist, clearly, at the speed and the man­ner that Que­be­cers want,” Blanchet said dur­ing last week’s French-lan­guage de­bate. “In the in­terim, don’t be sur­prised by a prox­im­ity be­tween the Bloc Québé­cois and the cur­rent Que­bec govern­ment. Why? Be­cause these are two en­ti­ties that are res­o­lutely na­tion­al­ist.”

The re­sult is a party tout­ing a blend of pro­gres­sive and na­tion­al­ist poli­cies: the Bloc wants more ac­tion on cli­mate change, but is also call­ing for Que­bec to have more con­trol over im­mi­gra­tion. It also sup­ports Bill 21, which bans re­li­gious sym­bols for some pub­lic sec­tor em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing teach­ers, judges and po­lice of­fi­cers.

Still, there are many who won’t be con­vinced the party still has a rai­son d’être. “It hasn’t worked for 30 years. It won’t work bet­ter to­day,” said Su­san Costi­gan, a re­tiree from Trois-Rivières, an­other bat­tle­ground rid­ing. “I’ve re­tired. There are par­ties that should also re­tire.”

The Con­ser­va­tives have also tried to turn a CAQ govern­ment to their ad­van­tage, hop­ing to add to their 11 seats. “When we speak with peo­ple who voted for the CAQ, more than a ma­jor­ity have the ten­dency to align with the Con­ser­va­tive Party,” Alain Rayes, the party’s Que­bec lieu­tenant, re­cently told re­porters.

The Tories have adopted some of the CAQ’s key de­mands, in­clud­ing a com­mit­ment to a sin­gle in­come tax re­turn for Que­bec and a prom­ise not to chal­lenge Bill 21 in court.

These com­mit­ments ap­pear in a list of de­mands Le­gault is­sued to the fed­eral lead­ers last month. But the Bloc is the only party to em­brace all of the CAQ’s de­mands, in­clud­ing al­low­ing Que­bec to give a lan­guage and values test to im­mi­grants.

Marie-Josée Guérette, one of the Tories’ Que­bec City can­di­dates, said the Con­ser­va­tives will do more for Que­be­cers than the Bloc ever can. “The only way for Que­be­cers to have a stronger voice in Ot­tawa is to vote for the Con­ser­va­tive Party, be­cause the Bloc will never be in power,” she said.

Still, a ma­jor ob­sta­cle is Scheer’s pro­posal to build a na­tional en­ergy cor­ri­dor that would move oil and gas across the coun­try. “There’s a strong op­po­si­tion to a pipe­line cross­ing Que­bec,” Lachapelle said. “I think it’s very ba­sic.”

Tar­get­ing the Con­ser­va­tive leader as a key op­po­nent, Blanchet at­tacked Scheer for this pro­posal dur­ing Mon­day’s de­bate. He also de­manded to know Scheer’s per­sonal views on abor­tion dur­ing last week’s de­bate in French. Scheer has now said pub­licly that he is pro-life, a po­si­tion not shared by many of his Que­bec can­di­dates.

Not long ago, com­men­ta­tors were pre­dict­ing a very dif­fer­ent cam­paign for the Con­ser­va­tives in Que­bec. “The most re­al­is­tic sce­nario seems to be a Con­ser­va­tive wave un­like any­thing Que­bec has seen since the days of Brian Mul­roney,” con­ser­va­tive pun­dit Éric Duhaime wrote in July.

But it’s a mis­take to as­sume that peo­ple will vote one way fed­er­ally be­cause of how they voted provin­cially, Lachapelle said. “I think it’s clear that there’s a divi­sion of in­ter­ests here be­tween dif­fer­ent par­ties.”

The Lib­er­als are hop­ing to pick up a num­ber of the same seats the Bloc is tar­get­ing, to make gains on the 40 rid­ings they hold cur­rently. It’s the NDP that stands to lose from all this, of course — none of the party’s 14 seats is safe.

In Berthier—Mask­i­nongé, west of Trois-Rivières, Ruth Ellen Brosseau is one of few New Democrats with a de­cent chance. She’s pop­u­lar, hav­ing moved to the rid­ing af­ter her sur­prise elec­tion in 2011. “I still think that the NDP is not dead,” she said. “I don’t want to think doom and gloom, be­cause I don’t think we’re down and out.”

But if she keeps her seat, it may be in spite of her party, not be­cause of it. Brosseau’s main chal­lenger is the pres­i­dent of the Bloc Québé­cois, Yves Per­ron, who will try to con­vince vot­ers that the NDP had its mo­ment in Que­bec and never de­liv­ered. “Jack Lay­ton was a very sym­pa­thetic guy. I think he touched the heart of Que­be­cers, and they wanted to try some­thing else,” he said. “But now we’ve seen what it is. And it’s noth­ing much.”

Per­ron is hop­ing those vot­ers will see some­thing new in the Bloc this time around. “We can’t force peo­ple to vote for us,” he said. “We have to give them the taste for it, the de­sire.”

IT’S THE PARTY THAT MOST DE­FENDS THE IN­TER­ESTS OF

QUE­BEC.

AN­DREJ IVANOV / REUTERS

Bloc Que­be­cois leader Yves-Fran­cois Blanchet ar­rives at the French tele­vised de­bate at TVA in Mon­treal last week.

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