Is the Bloc Showing Signs of Fracture?

BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS Leader Gilles DUCEPPE began the election campaign still at a loss to explain what exactly went wrong last time around.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 29, 2008

BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS Leader Gilles DUCEPPE began the election campaign still at a loss to explain what exactly went wrong last time around.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 29, 2008

Is the Bloc Showing Signs of Fracture?

BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS Leader Gilles DUCEPPE began the election campaign still at a loss to explain what exactly went wrong last time around. His party, which has enjoyed a virtual federal monopoly on both the province's ridings and its virtue for nearly 18 years, suffered an embarrassing reversal of fortunes in 2006, losing all but one of its seats to the CONSERVATIVES in the vote-rich area surrounding Quebec City. "I'm not too sure," a seemingly perplexed Duceppe said about those losses last week. "There might have been a groundswell at the time, people thinking they would try something else." Duceppe subsequently went on to warn his fellow Quebecers that similar flights of fancy would mean a majority government for a pro-gun, pro-Bush, anti-Kyoto Conservative government - while a vote for the Bloc would help "avoid other tragedies like the shootings at Dawson and École Polytechnique."

Leaving aside that bit of cynical campaign hubris, about the school shootings at Dawson College in 2006 and Université de Montréal in 1989 that left a total of 15 people dead, what is perhaps most perplexing is that Duceppe is perplexed at all. Five former Bloc MPs, all from the party's conservative side, have come out since the beginning of this campaign to say that the Bloc has lost its raison d'être and has become little more than a mouthpiece for the province's powerful unions. This is nothing new: one of the five, founding member Nic Leblanc, told Maclean's as long as seven months ago that "the Bloc's role as a watchdog would be better served today by a party that has a chance" of forming a government. Meanwhile, former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Jacques Brassard, who has since rebranded himself as a right-wing newspaper columnist and professional grande gueule (big mouth), denounced the Bloc as a coterie of leftist dilettantes that, in the absence of any real sovereignist discourse, has "become the twin of the NDP ... the archaic Canadian socialist party."

Yet Duceppe didn't have to hear it from bitter former Bloc MPs or a brusque Péquiste firebrand to know all was not well within his party. After all, in 2006 he himself had charged his party's executive with parsing the Bloc's humiliating defeat in the Quebec City area. The resulting report, written by vice-president Hélène Alarie, was a damning indictment not only of the party's campaign but of its future prospects within the province it claims to represent. "With the Conservatives in power, we have to worry that this party will succeed in weakening us in a far more spectacular fashion if we don't find the key to reversing the trend," Alarie wrote. Founded expressly to usher Quebec out of Confederation, the Bloc has drifted steadily leftward as it became more entrenched in the federal scene and now "suffers from 'Montrealization,' " she said, referring to the Bloc's appeal to the average urban lefty at the expense of rural voters. "The prospect of a quick comeback by the Bloc in the Quebec region does not seem good."

Since its publication, the Alarie report has proven to be remarkably prophetic. Over the last two years, support for the Bloc has continued to decrease from its high-water mark in 2004, in part because of the "Conservative beachhead" and its campaigning muscle, as described in the report. The "federalist vacuum" resulting from the LIBERALS' fall from grace following the sponsorship scandal, which has only continued under Stéphane DION's lacklustre leadership, has translated to a surge in support for the Conservatives in Quebec - as Alarie predicted.

Duceppe, though, has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the very report he commissioned. (Alarie resigned from the party roughly a year after its publication, and couldn't be reached for comment.) The Bloc leader has instead actively pursued the federalist vote in the province, to help "save Canada" by preventing a Conservative majority, while repeating the Bloc's familiar post-referendum-era mantra of being the best representative of Quebecers' values in Ottawa. (This despite having received less than half of the province's votes in 2006.) "I'm not here to make a review of the last campaign," Duceppe said last week when asked about the Alarie report. "I'm here to do this campaign."

Université de Montréal political science professor Pierre Martin has an idea why Duceppe is in this state of wilful ignorance. The Bloc, he says, hasn't tried to secure the right flank of Quebec's nationalist vote - the pro-gun, anti-Kyoto type personified by Jacques Brassard - simply because it can't, tactically speaking. "The party is more interested in presenting a unified front and risking losing certain rightist ideologues, than including sovereignists of all stripes and going to Ottawa with a hodgepodge of different ideas," Martin says. "You can't have eight different personalities when you are called a 'bloc.' "

For a long time, Martin points out, Duceppe's purposeful leftward tack didn't matter much, since he was guaranteed the sovereignist vote regardless. Meanwhile, there were two warring federalist parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, splitting the remaining vote. That is how, in 2006, the Bloc was able to capture 68 per cent of the province's seats with only 42 per cent of the vote.

Harper's recognition of the Quebec nation changed all this. A "rather empty political notion" in Martin's estimation, the bill recognizing the Québécois as "a nation within a united Canada" nonetheless managed to attract nationalists, who began to fill Conservative ranks in earnest. Before the Québécois declaration, Martin says, the average rural nationalist was doubly orphaned. Though he wholeheartedly disagreed with the Bloc's position on same-sex marriage and euthanasia, to name just two, he nonetheless voted for the party because he was a sovereignist; the Conservative or Liberal platforms might have been appealing, but the federalist view of Canada - a centralized federation in which Quebec was just another province - was unpalatable. The Quebec nation bill, and the Conservative party that introduced it, was a way out.

The Bloc still remains formidable in the province. Though support for the party has eroded over the last three elections - from 49 per cent in the Bloc's salad days of the sponsorship scandal to between 30 and 34 per cent at the beginning of this campaign, according to several polls - Duceppe is still far and away the most popular leader of the three major federal parties in Quebec. He made a notable appearance at the Festival Western St-Tite, a hugely popular cowboy-hats-and-flapjacks affair in the small town of St-Tite - an apparent attempt to downplay the party's Montreal-centric reputation. And just after former Bloc MPs openly questioned the significance of the party, others leapt to its defence. Eleven former MPs, as left-leaning as the dissidents were from the right, said the Bloc is Quebec's bulwark against ever-creeping Canadianism in the province. "Contrary to what certain bitter souls say, the Bloc Québécois is as pertinent as ever," they wrote in an open letter published in Le Devoir. "The Bloc Québécois is Quebec's only true party in Ottawa."

Duceppe has also taken to speaking about the Constitution. Quebec, he has reminded journalists at several campaign stops over the last week, has yet to sign it. "Mr. Harper and all federalists in Ottawa have said that the fruit is not ripe for constitutional talks," he said at a stop in Huntingdon. "They don't want to talk about it, but we need to continue this debate." It is a familiar refrain. Throughout the campaign so far, Duceppe has been relatively mute on the subject of another referendum on sovereignty - all the better, perhaps, to garner those federalist votes. But in calling for renewed constitutional talks, he is hearkening back to the last Conservative sweep of the province in 1984, thanks largely to Brian MULRONEY's promise to "fix" Quebec's constitutional status. The failure of the resulting Meech Lake accord reawakened sovereignist sentiment in the province and ultimately led to the formation of the Bloc Québécois.

A similar situation could be a boon to the party, but to count on another failed round of constitutional talks to breathe new life into the Bloc may be a bit much. And in the meantime there is Hélène Alarie, who didn't think much of the Bloc's fortunes a mere two years ago. "The collapse of our troops in the Quebec City region ... left a huge void in the sovereignist movement and suggests dark days for the Bloc elsewhere in Quebec if we don't readjust our aim," she wrote in 2006. Duceppe may have largely ignored the report he commissioned. Still, for the Bloc's sake, he can only hope it doesn't continue to prove to be as accurate as it has been so far.


Early days

Duceppe was born in Montreal on July 22, 1947, to the famous Québécois actor Jean Duceppe and his wife, Hélène Rowley. Duceppe has said that he developed an early distaste for anglophones, but his maternal grandfather, John James Rowley, was a British-born immigrant who arrived in Canada at the age of 16.

School days

In Grade 6, his anglophone teacher slapped him for complaining about the preferential treatment given to Anglo students on school buses. He slapped her back.

First job

His first job was in Montreal, with the Company of Young Canadians, a government-funded volunteer agency whose members tended to have strong Marxist and separatist views. He later worked as a hospital orderly, but he was fired for his aggressive union activities.

Getting married

In 1978, he married Yolande Brunelle, an education consultant who kept her last name, as per the Quebec tradition. They have two children, Amélie and Alexis, who both work in the movie business.


On the campaign bus, he is said to relax to high-volume Janis Joplin and Maria Callas.

Maclean's September 29, 2008