I never thought I’d see the day when the federal party established to break up Canada was finally on the verge of breaking up itself.
For that matter, I always figured that if I lived long enough to see the Bloc Quebecois disappear from the Canadian political landscape, there would be a great national celebration to accompany it.
And yet, as embattled BQ leader Martine Ouellet attempts to counter the recent resignation of seven of the Bloc’s 10 Members of Parliament, it feels like the country that once regarded the Bloc with such distaste and aggression – even within Quebec – is now greeting the news with a collective yawn.
To put this in perspective, remember that the Bloc and its leadership had our collective attention in the separatist party’s first 21 years of existence. They won an eye-popping 54 seats in each of 1993 and 2004. In the former election, that result earned them the right to serve as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition; in the latter, it gave them bargaining power in the short-lived Liberal minority government of Paul Martin.
Prior to 2011 and Quebec voters’ swing to the Jack Layton-led NDP, the Bloc had never won fewer than 38 seats in any federal election. It went into that campaign with 49 MPs; a grand total of nobody, even the most optimistic NDP organizers, expected the orange wave that reduced the Bloc caucus to a rump of four. They rebounded to 10 seats in 2015, but now they’re down to three, with the seven BQ defectors renaming themselves the “Quebec Parliamentary Group.”
It’s a far cry from the early ‘90s, when the charismatic Lucien Bouchard abruptly quit Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative cabinet over his boss’s failed attempts to amend the Canadian constitution to secure Quebec’s signature on the 1982 document. Along with five other rogue Tories, two Liberals upset by the rise of Jean Chretien to the party’s leadership, and a newly-elected independent-but-separatist MP named Gilles Duceppe, Bouchard officially formed the Bloc Quebecois in 1990. (Duceppe, of course, would go on to lead the Bloc through seven consecutive elections.)
As a young adult at the time, I simultaneously found Bouchard maddening and frightening. Here was a man who deceived and betrayed his boss, originally elected in a 1988 by-election as a federalist and now openly campaigning to take Quebec out of Canada. Here was an Opposition Leader with such a singular focus that he insisted that his Bloc caucus would only use French to address government MPs in the House of Commons, all the while using Canadian taxpayers’ money to pay for the most public display of the separatist agenda.
In the run-up to the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum, Bouchard declared that francophone Quebecers were “one of the few white races” not consistently producing children. Even xenophobic garbage like that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of his most fervent supporters; I remember my blood running cold while watching a news item in the campaign’s dying days, in which a female fan called out to Bouchard’s departing limo that she believed he “could move mountains.”
The mountain didn’t move on October 30, 1995, but it was close: 50.6 per cent for the “Non” side, 49.4 per cent for the “Oui” side. (I still recall talking to a friend of mine from Cheticamp on the phone that night while watching CBC’s referendum coverage, and the two of us freaking out every time the little bar at the bottom of the screen crept from one side to the other.)
That was the power of Lucien Bouchard and the Bloc Quebecois in the 1990s. They came within a whisker of throwing Confederation into chaos.
Only two decades later, the Bloc is a shell of its former self, barely registering a blip inside or outside Quebec. CBC poll analyst Eric Grenier has even predicted that all 10 Bloc seats could fall to the Liberals in the next election, wiping out the party for good.
Strangely, even the Bloc’s founders seemed to recognize that the party wasn’t designed to last forever. In late 1994, Bouchard told a meeting of the BQ’s general council that the party “cannot become a permanent fixture in the House of Commons,” adding: “We must make people understand that this is no way to run a federation, forever sending separatist MPs to Ottawa. That’s obviously not a solution.”
So perhaps the current Bloc Quebecois struggles are symptomatic of a political movement running its course, right on schedule. Or perhaps Quebec voters are realizing, at last, that Canada and the people that make it up are stronger together than they are apart.
Notwithstanding the Bloc’s in-house feuding, this all seems to have happened so quietly, without dragging the rest of the country along for the ride.
How delightfully Canadian.