The Bloc rises in the shadow of the CAQ

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Saturday, October 19, 2019.

Given the haze, ambiguity and, crucially, the unpredictability of this election campaign, it is becoming harder to determine how everything will shape up after Canadians head to the polls on Monday. While still unclear, seat distributions seem to signal a return to the minority governments of our not so distant past.

Among all the uncertainty however, one thing is crystal clear: the Bloc Québécois is well and truly back.

When Gilles Duceppe stepped down as leader of the Bloc in 2011, the party was careening toward irrelevance at breakneck speed. Stripped of official party status and struggling with its identity at a time when the notion of sovereignty had become less and less popular with Quebecers, the party was a pale shadow of its former status as a potent third-party in the early Harper years.

While the 2015 election saw the party elect 10 MPs, the ensuing years were marred by defections, infighting and the decline of Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois — their provincial cousins. All the while, pundits, politicos and partisans continued to raise the same nagging question, “how can a sovereigntist party remain relevant when most Quebecers no longer support sovereignty?”

Over the past few months, party leader Yves-Françoise Blanchet has answered that question and done much, much more. Facing a serious decline in support for separatism in Quebec, Blanchet has responded by transforming the party with a pivot from sovereignty to nationalism.

While only about 30 per cent of Quebecers currently support sovereignty, the Bloc has managed to tap into a rising nationalist sentiment, driven by a feeling that Quebecois culture is under threat. It was this emotional tide that François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec rode to victory in 2018, promising voters that rather than fighting for sovereignty, they would forcefully stand up for the interests of the province, within Canada.

Despite his past as a Parti Quebecois minister, Blanchet has skilfully managed to align with Legault in a way that has eluded the other federal parties. Indeed, Blanchet has explicitly said his decision to run for the leadership of the Bloc was motivated by his desire to ensure there would be Quebec MPs to defend actions taken by the CAQ.

It has started with his ardent defence of Bill 21. Over the course of the election campaign, Blanchet has made the bill a key issue, defending above all the Quebec government’s right to implement legislation as it sees fit.

And it has hurt the Liberals and Conservatives, especially. For weeks, Blanchet has forced other party leaders to speak up on the issue and clarify their stance on the bill, which has become a shorthand of sorts for Quebec’s right to self-governance.

We’ve seen both Scheer and Trudeau squirm on the debate stage as Blanchet accused them of meddling in provincial affairs when it comes to the controversial bill. By doing so, the Bloc leader has shown Quebecers what a vote for the Bloc can deliver. In essence, Blanchet is saying: “this is what it would look like to have an ally in the House pushing the other parties to stand up for you.”

What’s more, Blanchet has done it all with a certain flair. It is no coincidence that the resurgence of the Bloc is being led by a former media commentator and known personality in provincial politics. He is media-savvy and his ability to earn public attention has served the party well throughout the course of the campaign.

Those skills stand him in stark contrast to Gilles Duceppe, whose blunt communication style and stern demeanour reminded Canadians — and Quebecers — of the implied conflict embedded in separatist politics. Blanchet, on the other hand, is a leader of the social media age: calm, sensible and likeable.

Many will say that Blanchet has an inherent advantage because he is not, at the end of the day, running to be prime minister of Canada. Indeed, he is running to be — for all practical purposes — the prime minister of Quebec. But to anyone who witnessed firsthand the decline of the Bloc, that does not make the party’s resurgence any less impressive. And it does not mean that his success will have any less impact on the formation of government, come Tuesday morning.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt