Bloc Remains a Force to be Reckoned With

The ghosts of language battles past haunted Quebec in January, and few could have been happier than BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS Leader Gilles DUCEPPe. First, a popular tabloid garnered three days' worth of headlines when its reporter, posing as a unilingual anglophone, managed to find work at 15 Montreal-area businesses. Then, a prominent Quebec demographer claimed the CHAREST government had blocked the release of his study showing the steady decrease in the number of francophones living in Montreal.

The resulting tizzy provided ideal fodder for Duceppe, who is girding his sovereignist party for election. Using rhetoric harkening back to the days when many Quebecers saw themselves in the title of the book White Niggers of America, Duceppe likened federalist politicians from Quebec, particularly the Tories, who took several seats from the Bloc in the 2006 election, as culturally challenged yes-men who do nothing to help the province. Stumping for his latest crusade - a call for BILL 101 to apply to all federal institutions in Quebec, effectively making the federal government French-only in the province - Duceppe declared: "I say to all the Uncle Toms from Quebec that are in Ottawa who say to us, 'If you want to enforce French, do it in Quebec,' it's time for them to act if they are serious about recognizing Quebec as a nation."

Duceppe's attempt to reignite the language wars may be simple pre-election strategy. Or it may be something more. His heated rhetoric comes at a time when some founding members of the Bloc, as well as some prominent sovereignists, question the party's very existence in Ottawa. "The Bloc's role as a watchdog would be better served today by a party that has a chance to get into power," says Nic Leblanc, founding vice-president of the Bloc, who has since joined the Conservative party. "I left the party in 1997 because it no longer had a place in Ottawa." Former Péquiste chapter president Catherine Paré, who signed an open letter calling for a dissolution of the Bloc last year, would agree: "I left the Bloc because it's time to do something else," she told Le Soleil at the time.

Given the party's founding mandate, it's impressive the Bloc has lasted this long. Lucien Bouchard created the party in 1991 solely as an instrument of Quebec independence; by design, the party would cease to exist after a referendum, regardless of the outcome. Bouchard warned of "career politicians" who would "become part of the furniture" should the party remain in Ottawa any longer. Even though he wound up leader of the Official opposition in 1993, he nevertheless took his own advice and left Ottawa for the PQ after the referendum defeat in 1995.

Yet far from disappearing, you might say the Bloc has become part of the furniture. Its MPs have, on average, been on the Hill longer than the NDP's, not to mention the governing Conservatives'. The party has outlived three incarnations of the current Conservative party, as well as five Tory, two Liberal and two NDP leaders. Its MPs regularly represent the country on the world stage - including MP Francine Lalonde, who, until recently, was vice-chair of the foreign affairs and international development committee and "a great spokesperson for Canada," according to Liberal MP Derek Lee. Last November, Lalonde called former PM Lester B. Pearson "a giant" and "one of the greatest figures of our century," and chastised the Harper government for not properly honouring him.

"It has become an entrenched, traditional party," says Manon Cornellier, who wrote a book on the Bloc's early days. "It's striking to see how many files that have nothing to do with sovereignty, where it's often the Bloc creating common fronts in Ottawa."

Duceppe himself has spearheaded crucial relationships with the NDP, on a Bloc bill relaxing the restrictions on employment insurance, for instance. He was an early supporter of Canada's mission in Afghanistan (though he has since changed his tune), and remains a staunch defender of the national gun registry. Along with the Liberals and the NDP, he has criticized the Conservative energy policy and its failure to defend the Kyoto accord. At the same time, Duceppe's support of the government - the Bloc voted in favour of two budgets - has allowed the Conservatives their longest ever minority term.

The Bloc today is perhaps best known for the quality of its MPs and their dogged participation in parliamentary committees. "Once you scratch below the surface, once you go into committee, they become like all of us," says Liberal MP Lui Temelkovski, who co-chairs the health committee with Bloc MP Christiane Gagnon. "She's thoughtful, engaged, bilingual and very co-operative," Temelkovski says of his colleague. Gagnon has also spoken out on the plight of HIV-infected Canadians, and on women's issues, and for years sat on the Canadian Heritage committee, co-chaired by Maria Maurani - another Bloc MP.

A committed sovereignist who opposes Canada's multicultural policy, Maurani nonetheless oversees a committee mandated to foster national unity and "enhance the multicultural reality of Canada." Even stranger: according to Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, who co-chairs Heritage with her, she was a staunch supporter of CBC and Radio-Canada during the committee's recent examination of the national broadcaster. "The CBC is an instrument that, if it carries out its mandate, helps Canadians understand each other better," he says. "You'd think that this would negatively affect the Bloc's objective."

To be sure, Bloc members hedge their involvement in federal politics by saying they are the only ones who can defend "Quebec's interests." "We are there to make sure the federation doesn't work against us, and I think we do an excellent job," says Bloc MP Vivian Barbot. (Barbot herself sits on 16 of 26 parliamentary committees, making her one of the busiest MPs on the Hill.)

This conceit - that only sovereignists can protect Quebec's interests - forms the Bloc's raison d'être whenever there is a lull in the sovereignist discourse in Quebec. The fact that the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS is currently marooned in third place, and its leader, Pauline Marois, is openly questioning the wisdom of a referendum any time soon, doesn't help. "Because the PQ no longer has a timetable on a referendum, the Bloc has had to change its strategy," says Denis Monière, a Université de Montréal professor and Bloc supporter. The party, he says, has had to back off on any talk of sovereignty: "In effect, it forces the Bloc to be less different than the Conservatives, making it less competitive."

"The Bloc's fundamental reason for existing is pretty limiting," echoes Cornellier. "They are sovereignists first. At the same time, they have to attract federalist and soft nationalist votes to win a large number of seats, so they say that a vote for the Bloc is safe because the party can't call a referendum. They are constantly in a difficult position, and its MPs will spend their lives defending the party's existence."

Some of the loudest criticism has come from sovereignists themselves. After the electoral defeat of André Boisclair and the PQ last spring, five prominent Péquistes called for the dissolution of the Bloc, saying it saps valuable resources from the sovereignist cause in Quebec. An internal report, commissioned by Duceppe following its surprise defeat in several ridings in 2006, spoke of the party's ideological dilemma. "We believe there is a fundamental weakness within the party that threatens its existence," wrote author Hélène Alarie, then the party's vice-president. Many Quebecers, the report noted, no longer see themselves in the Bloc's leftist discourse and social policies, and are tired of voting for a party that will forever be in opposition. Even Duceppe has wavered: the chief Bloquiste entertained an exit from the Bloc for the PQ leadership one summer weekend last year, only to recant when Pauline Marois announced similar intentions. More recently, he said he would consider it a vote of confidence in his leadership if the Bloc won 38 seats in the next election. It currently holds 49.

As it heads into its sixth election, the party that was never supposed to exist this long faces a fierce bit of irony: its MPs have come to be accepted and even admired in Ottawa, but some of the people who send them there are wondering why they bother.

See also FRANCOPHONE-ANGLOPHONE RELATIONS.

Maclean's February 25, 2008