Who exactly are the Bloc Québécois? For many British Columbians, this party may seem like little more than a mythological entity whose presence in Canadian politics is only occasionally touched on by CBC news reports and election poll trackers. But what drove the Bloc’s success in the 2019 federal election? Their resurgence isn’t just a momentary spike in populist politics, akin to the type that got Donald Trump elected back in 2016. Instead, the party’s comeback following a near-decade of disappointing election results can be credited to their mobilization of deep-rooted Quebec nationalism.
The Bloc’s origins
The Bloc Québécois is a political party whose origins trace back to the failure of the 1990 Meech Lake Accord, a series of constitutional amendments proposed by the Progressive Conservative party under then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The accord was originally intended to pacify Quebec’s separatist interests by giving the province a greater degree of legislative autonomy and notably acknowledging Quebec’s status as a “société distincte” — a distinct society — within the greater context of the Canadian nation-state.
But Mulroney’s attempts to bring the Accord to fruition failed when Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador rejected the amendment. Frustrated by the Accord’s failure, several members of the Conservative party broke away and formed the Bloc in order to better advance Quebecois interests.
The Bloc won 54 seats in their first federal election in 1993 — becoming the official opposition of the Liberal government at the time —and remained popular throughout the 1990s and 2000s,
winning anywhere from 38 to 60 seats. In 2011, however, the party was humiliated by the NDP, who took 59 of the 75 seats in Quebec (leaving a mere four for the Bloc). The following election was another disappointment for the party: native Quebecer and Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau limited the success of the Bloc to just 10 seats.
Le Québec, c’est nous. “Quebec: it’s us.”
The Bloc’s 2019 federal election slogan captures the party’s longstanding role as the principal arbiter of identity politics in Quebec. Ingrained in the political party’s philosophy is the desire to strengthen the sense of who Quebec is, not just as a province, but as a political entity with a deeply-ingrained nationalist flavour. It’s arguably the Canadian party with the most distinct sense of “otherness,” and harnessing that unique identity has played a key part in its success.
But the Bloc is, in reality, a strange blend between highly progressive policies and ardent conservative values. On environmental issues, for instance, the party favours an even stronger carbon tax than the one currently put in place by the Liberal government. They also cited “environmental sovereignty”* as one of the core elements of their party platform, expressing a desire to reassert their voice on issues like pipeline constructions in the face of federal pressure. The Bloc also supported the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, greater allotment of federal funds for post-secondary research, and significantly more investment in arts and culture.
Yet beneath this veil of social progressiveness hides the undertones of a party deeply rooted in traditional Quebec values. “The model of Quebec integration is incompatible with [the constitutional principle of] multiculturalism,”* the party’s official platform document notes in one section on Quebecois society. The idea of a “social contract”* to which all Quebec residents should subscribe, including newcomers, also highlights the party’s commitment to “laïcité,” or secularism in the public sphere. The party also stated it would support the policies of its provincial counterpart, the Parti Québécois, on more stringent immigration standards (such as the implementation of French language and Quebec “values”* exams, and capping the number of family reunification claims.)
The Bloc did not cite direct support for the controversial piece of provincial legislation known as “Bill 21,” which effectively bans all public sector employees in Quebec from wearing garments or jewelry indicating religious affiliation. The party’s leader Yves-François Blanchet, however, called the law “moderate” in comparison to more stringent European laws and asked that federal parties remain neutral as the bill went to federal court on the basis of violating constitutional rights to religious expression. This bill was interpreted by many as an affront to the religious freedoms of many visible minorities; in particular, targeting Muslim women who wear niqāb and hijab — obvious markers of religious affiliation.
The Bloc’s platform is more than a series of strategic political positions that shift to comply with contemporary issues. Rather, it represents a promise to fight against the insecurity of Quebecois society against the fears of outside influence (namely from anglophone Canada and immigrants) and to reassert Quebec’s priorities in the federal context. Fuelled by a sense of cultural cohesion, the Bloc’s resurgence proves that there is a mounting social anxiety surrounding the need to protect Quebecois identity.
The 2019 election in context
In both 2011 and 2015, when the Bloc’s seat count dropped below the minimum 12 needed for a party to qualify for official party status, the party’s relevance to contemporary Canadian politics seemed to come into question. How nationalist was Quebec still, as they pivoted to support two parties (the NDP and Liberals) who prioritized progressive social policies while remaining relatively mute on the topic of separatism?
But this autumn, the Bloc successfully harnessed a combination of the background anxiety concerning the defense of Quebec’s values and interests with sentiments of disappointment toward the Liberal party among Quebecois voters. And while this current form of Bloc is reluctant to show the same fervor for separatism as in past iterations (especially under the leadership of Pauline Marois back in 2014, when a third separatist referendum became an election promise), the party’s return is an important reminder that nationalism in Quebec is still very much relevant to contemporary federal politics. How the Bloc will assert this nationalist identity in the coming years will certainly be something to watch out for, and will make for a unique dynamic with which the Liberal Party’s minority government will have to contend.
* Translated by Dorothy Poon from the official party platform of the Bloc Québécois.