This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 1, 2008
The Bloc Is Back with a New List of Demands
There is a certain delight in being a Bloquiste these days. Having been written off yet again this fall by Quebec's nattering punditocracy, and despite a listless early campaign performance, the party returns to Parliament this week nearly as big and powerful as before the election. Gilles DUCEPPE has sprung back from near death almost as many times as Quebec Premier (and noted turnaround artist) Jean CHAREST, though in the current incarnation, the BLOC is less a sovereignist party than an escape valve for the nervous Quebec vote. Without a referendum in the province's near future, and with the party never actually having to govern, supporting the Bloc remains almost consequence-free for Quebecers.
Still, the party's horizons are muddied. Though it managed to stave off the attempted Conservative swarm of Quebec, the Bloc's share of the popular vote decreased by four percentage points - the second-lowest showing in its history. In the absence of the nationalist furor that brought it into being - support for sovereignty is at its lowest ebb in nearly four decades - the Bloc has come to rely on the shortcomings of its adversaries, and on short-term manoeuvring, for its continued survival.
This time around, HARPER's missteps on arts funding and juvenile justice, in which the Prime Minister proposed letting judges send young violent offenders to adult prisons, were a gift to Duceppe. "Before the election, people were ready to vote for Stephen Harper's CONSERVATIVES, ready to participate in government, ready to move onto other things," says Léger Marketing president Jean-Marc Léger. "In the end, though, the Bloc didn't win, the Conservatives lost."
The Bloc, which also benefited enormously from the split in the federalist vote, returns to Parliament more or less intact, and all the more entrenched. The party boasts both the oldest MP on the Hill, Christian Ouellet, at 74, and the longest-serving MP, Louis Plamondon. Gilles Duceppe is by far the most experienced party leader, and the only one who is also a grandfather. Its MPs are among the most prolific committee members in Ottawa, and are instrumental in the forming of policy affecting Canadians beyond Quebec's borders.
And once again, Gilles Duceppe returns to Parliament as resident kingmaker. The Tory minority is thought safe from toppling until at least next May, when the LIBERALS hold their leadership convention. After that, the Bloc's 49 seats will give it considerable sway. As with the last two budgets, the Tories will likely look to the Bloc to prop up its government. Duceppe has already named his price for co-operating: along with a bevy of government initiatives to see Quebec (and, by extension, the rest of the country) through the economic crisis, including aid for forestry and manufacturing sectors and retraining programs for elderly workers, the Bloc is demanding Harper reverse the shelving of Quebec's economic development grants, as well as the pre-election cuts to arts funding. (On the latter, at least, Harper has so far refused to budge.)
Duceppe will also continue to harp on Canada's "fiscal imbalance," which it defines as an "intrusion in the jurisdictions of Quebec and the provinces." (Reading much of the Bloc's literature, one might get the impression that Quebec has already separated.)
With all its demands, some of which the Tories will no doubt acquiesce to, it may seem odd that the Bloc's bid to remain relevant through Canada's 40th parliamentary session will effectively hinge on proving, in the words of one senior Bloc MP, that "federalism doesn't work" and that Canada "is a dead end." The party will do so largely by introducing Quebec-centric bills that don't have a chance of passing.
In 2007, for example, the Bloc's Pauline Picard introduced Bill C-482, a private member's bill to compel the federal government "to undertake not to obstruct the application of the Charter of the French Language in Quebec" - effectively making federal and financial institutions within Quebec French-only. An affront to Canada's Official Languages Act, the bill was handily beaten in the House of Commons. Which was exactly the point.
"We are going to show that over the years, no matter what party is in power, there is a limit to what Quebec can do [within Canada]," said Bloc MP Christiane Gagnon. "We are always hitting a wall."
If this is the case, the Bloc will be purposefully running into many walls in the next parliamentary session. Along with Bill C-482, which it plans on reintroducing shortly after Parliament reconvenes, the party will put forward motions demanding, among other measures, the end of official multiculturalism in Quebec, the establishment of a Quebec-only body governing the province's radio and television concerns, and a reorganization of Telefilm Canada's funding structure so that Quebec would control its own grant money.
Duceppe will haunt the Harper government over its cuts to cultural spending, and has pledged to have la nation québécoise recognized in the Canadian Constitution, which he said would be a "further step toward sovereignty."
The strategy of asking for everything under the sun is "a win-win situation for the Bloc," according to Bloc parliamentary leader Pierre Paquette. "If a motion is refused, it shows the system doesn't work, and if it is accepted, it gives more power to Quebec," Paquette said. And whenever the government does heed Quebec's demands, as it did to the tune of $3.3 billion in transfer payments in the last federal budget, it is seen as the feds caving in once again to Canada's bête noire. "It infuriates a lot of people in the rest of the country," Paquette said, not without a hint of glee.
The fate of Gilles Duceppe, meanwhile, is a question few in his party wish to parse. His tenure became enough of a campaign issue that the Bloc leader made a spectacle of pledging to stay on for at least another term. Still, as a 61-year-old veteran of seven federal elections, five of them as leader, he isn't long for retirement - as well as a $136,000-a-year indexed federal pension were he to retire in January 2009, according to the Canadian Taxpayers Foundation.
Chief among the names bandied about as a potential successor is Paquette himself. A former secretary-general of the CSN, Quebec's second-largest union group, Paquette is hugely influential within the party and, along with Duceppe, is largely responsible for its leftward sway over the last decade. And like Duceppe, who occasionally refers to federalist MPs from Quebec as "Uncle Toms," Paquette is no stranger to overheated rhetoric. One of his favourite speeches, which he notably delivered to the CSN's anglophone section in 1994, equated the experience of French Quebecers in Canada to that of black South Africans during apartheid. (Paquette stands by the comparison today, though says he was referring to democratic struggle in general.)
Paquette has previously expressed interest in the job. He was one of a handful of Bloc MPs to put his name forward following Duceppe's aborted PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS leadership bid last year. (Duceppe left the Bloc to court the Péquistes only to return 48 hours later, after being rebuffed by current leader Pauline Marois.) "I was very happy to have him back," Paquette says today. "I hope Gilles Duceppe stays as leader for as long as possible."
Should he do so, Duceppe will continue to rely on the missteps of his opponents for electoral success. The federal government, Léger notes, "has given a lot of ammunition to the BQ over the years." The Bloc owes its existence to the failure of MEECH LAKE, and is the main beneficiary of Quebec's unease with the Clarity Act of 1999, as well as the sponsorship scandal and, most recently, the Conservatives' culture cuts and justice policy. "These are all things that feed the 'Quebec difference,' " says Léger.
Rhetoric and outlandish demands are part of the Bloc's raison d'être, and the party will not be any quieter this time around. For federalists, the key to neutralizing the Bloc seems to lie in running an effective, scandal-free administration, and a error-free election campaign. That the Bloc continues to exist shows this might be too much to ask.
Maclean's December 1, 2008