Is the Bloc on an upswing, or will it crash before 2019?
Published in Life in Quebec Magazine, May 2017
L’année 2016, année de transition, est terminée. Plus que jamais, le Québec a besoin d’un Bloc fort et uni pour mener ces combats jusqu’aux prochaines élections et, ultimement, jusqu’à l’indépendance de notre nation.” — former head of the Bloc Québécois, Mario Beaulieu announcing a new leadership race in January, 2017.
At an annual general meeting at Lucien Borne community centre in Quebec City, a building that overlooks the lower town and out to the mountains north of the city, 15 members of the Bloc Quebecois’ riding association for Quebec discuss a standard order of business: finances, reports and elections. The chair is wearing a black shirt with a map of Alberta on it. Blood splats cover parts of the map where the Tar Sands operate. It’s a Greenpeace classic.
As chair, Patrice Vachon stickhandles the discussion. The group decides that the priorities for the next year will be independence and fighting the Energy East pipeline. And, to find a way to bring sovereignist supporters from different parties together. Everyone in the room may be a bloquiste, but provincially, they’re a mixed bag that includes péquistes, Option Nationale activists and likely, voters who would choose Quebec Solidaire.
While some ridings in Quebec, Jonquière and Lac-Saint-Jean for example, have struggled to find party members to assume the role of president, that wasn’t the case for the downtown riding of Quebec. On May 9, Phillippe Lavoie was elected president. He’s 22, and despite his involvement with the party has only been a matter of months, he sees the Bloc as being the only party that can defend the social democratic values of Quebecers in Ottawa.
Lavoie is passionate about stopping the Energy East pipeline project, meant to pump Alberta crude across Canada and to a refinery in the East. “We talk about transporting Alberta’s oil. If that passes through Quebec, that is the biggest issue. There’s a [connection to Quebec] that the Bloc has that the other parties don’t have.”
Key to regaining the Bloc’s power is convergence, says Lavoie: that 2018 is the year where sovereignist parties and interests must unite behind the Bloc to defend Quebec’s interests, not only sovereignty. After all, “Independence will take time.”
Martine Ouellet, independent member of national assembly for Vachon and twice-failed leadership candidate for the Parti Québécois was acclaimed leader of the Bloc on March 18. She took over from Mario Beaulieu, MP and former head of the Société de Saint-Jean Baptiste de Montréal. The election was held quickly, according to an internal party memo obtained by Radio-Canada, to give them as much time as possible to build for the 2019 election.
The Bloc doesn’t currently have party status, but compared to where they were in 2011, from only four to 10 members of parliament, it could be argued that they are on an upswing. How the party responds to the missteps and the policies of the Liberals will be important. More important though, will be whether or not they can convince Quebecers that they are a more effective opposition than the NDP and therefore, deserve their votes.
The Bloc is in a rare position in Canadian politics. It would take a special constellation of forces for it to ever be part of governing Canada, but that has never been the party’s goal. With the pressure to win government out of the equation, the Bloc must strive to be the true, legitimate voice of Quebecers. It’s a challenge that’s been woven into the DNA of the party and one that party activists are sure it can accomplish.
Manon Cornellier, political columnist at Le Devoir, and author of the 1995 book The Bloc says that the Bloc’s role has always been to defend issues and interests as they relate to Quebec. Bloc MPs amplify issues that Quebecers care about and ensure that a Quebec perspective is applied to all legislation.
When the party lost official party status in 2011, they also lost a lot of resources that official parties normally have: research staff, administrators, offices and of course, fewer elected members to stay on top of the daily work of parliament. As their influence diminished, the Bloc has drifted closer to being a party of Quebec sovereignty and little else. They are, of course a sovereignist party, but Cornellier reminds that their influence in federal politics was more than simply talking about independence. They had influence within trade delegations. They had more access to the diplomatic corps, more debate time in the House of Commons and more committee time to influence legislation.
Lavoie was drawn to the party because, “the Bloc is for all Quebecois, not just for independentists. They are for Quebec jobs, the economy and the environment.” The success of the party will hinge on whether or not Lavoie and his fellow activists can make a majority of Quebecers agree.
The Bloc has always existed to promote Quebec’s interests. Cornellier links the foundation of the Bloc to the constitutional conundrum of 1982, when a majority of federal MPs voted in favour of repatriating Canada’s constitution, while the national assembly under René Lévesque opposed it. By the time the Meech Lake Accord failed, sovereignty activists saw the need to confront the idea of double legitimacy for Quebec independence. The Bloc became a large-tent party of sovereignty activists that was able to not only express the desire to secede from Canada, but also carried a social democratic banner in Ottawa.
The expression of social democracy was an important reason for the Bloc’s popularity, and it’s what led so many Bloc voters to switch from them to the NDP during the Orange Wage in 2011. Cornellier says that the Bloc’s inability to convince Quebecers that they could defeat Stephen Harper was at the heart of the electoral swing.
“[G]etting rid of the Harper government was a priority,” says Cornellier. “It became more important to do so, so [Quebecers] turned to the only federal party that they had some commonality with on social policies and the environment, In 2011, the Liberals hadn’t yet rebuilt.” This, plus the Sherbrooke Declaration where the NDP committed to asymmetrical nationhood for Quebec was enough to convince a record number of Quebecers to vote orange. Canadians had reacted poorly to the notion of a coalition government involving Gilles Duceppe. Jack Layton seemed to have the best chance of defeating Harper.
When asked if the Bloc is at risk of disappearing, Lavoie says that the party rests at second place in the polls. Despite the controversy of Martine Ouellet’s refusal to give up her provincial seat to lead a federal party, and a minor controversy from within the party that surrounded her acclamation, the Bloc has been working steadily to raise concerns on various issues: they’ve been critical of the Liberal Party’s infrastructure bank, plans to store nuclear waste at Chalk River and the Conservative leadership debates about ending supply management in various agriculture sectors. They’ve issued releases on the softwood lumber dispute and legal marijuana.
And, the Energy East oil pipeline features prominently on the party’s website.
Perhaps the most important external factor is the NDP’s leadership race. NDP leadership hopeful Peter Julian came out strong against the Energy East pipeline from the start of his campaign. Alexandre Boulerice, Montreal’s highest profile NDP MP, aside perhaps from Tom Mulcair, has endorsed Julian. If there is consensus among social democrats in Quebec that Energy East is the most important issue, how the NDP and Bloc position themselves in Quebec on the project is critical.
(Guy Caron and Niki Ashton have both opposed Energy East. Charlie Angus has not. At the time of writing, Jagmeet Singh had not made a policy announcement).
Cornellier says that time will tell whether the Bloc will be able to survive, but there is still a core group of supporters, and most of their ridings remain active; important elements for any party. She says that that the party is no longer the diverse “rainbow coalition” that it was at its founding. “It’s the more militant sovereignists. They want to see the project as soon as possible,” she says.
But, the party remains the only sovereigntist option federally, which remains its core strength. If the convergence talk among the Parti Québécois, Option Nationale and Québec Solidaire is an indication that unity for Quebec independence is fundamental, the Bloc is the only option for that big-tent coalition of sovereigntists.
How will this play itself out in 2019? Well, c’est à suivre.