After each of the six elections since 1993, a chorus of Quebec commentators explained why the Bloc Québécois, once again, had won the largest number of seats in the province.
It's always been something: reaction against the defeat of the Meech Lake accord, the Liberal Party's sponsorship scandal and, this time, Conservative cuts to two little cultural programs and one announcement on juvenile sentencing.
Undoubtedly these somethings contributed to the Bloc's successes. Federal parties did things and adopted policy positions that were difficult to swallow, but then the same reaction occurs elsewhere without people running to parties that defend only the interests of their region or group.
Explanations after each election missed more fundamental interpretations that, outside Quebec, are worth pondering. They could lead to a reassessment of how to deal with the province.
By voting Bloc for six consecutive elections, the largest number of francophones in Quebec turned their backs on Canada, while not expecting that the rest of Canada would ever turn its back on Quebec.
Bloc voters obviously feel comfortable with the party. Some are separatists; others are not. They apparently welcome a party that wants no part of governing Canada while continuing to demand more and more from it. More and more in the sense of more money for Quebec, more jurisdictional power, a larger international presence and other way stations to the Bloc's eventual goal of an independent Quebec.
The Bloc seldom speaks of separation because, for the moment, most Quebeckers don't want to hear of it. Instead, the Bloc has transformed itself for political purposes into the "defender of Quebec's 'interests.' " Separation of Quebec from Canada, however, has been the fundamental reason for the Bloc's existence since its creation by Lucien Bouchard in the wake of the collapse of the Meech Lake accord.
MPs and 'their' turf
MPs all try to "defend" their regional interests in the federal government. From Confederation until the Bloc's creation, however, Quebec MPs tried, like those elsewhere in Canada, to defend their province's interests inside federal political parties, which is another way of saying within Canada.
Since 1993, the largest number of francophone Quebeckers apparently has wanted no part of federal parties, and therefore of the government or governance of Canada. Canada is no longer a country they wish to participate in governing, but one from which they wish to withdraw cash, like an automated teller machine.
They want to influence decisions in Ottawa without taking any responsibility for those decisions. They want neither to separate from Canada, nor to govern it. They want, through the Bloc Québécois, a variation of an old and enduring ambition: to be part of Canada, but only sort of, and on their terms, which means some sort of associate status, égal à égal, separate but not fully separate, sovereignty but with association, autonomous but still tied, somewhat in but somewhat out, or, in the metaphor of the brilliant Quebec journalist Jean Paré, parishioners in a church called Canada they seldom attend except for important occasions like Christmas, Easter and maybe marriages. They want to take but not to give. And they always prefer leaders, when given a choice, from Quebec.
It is historical fact, reinforced again this week, that Quebeckers have always voted for a party led by a Quebecker when confronted with a choice between such a party and one led by someone from outside the province.
This suggests that any leader from outside the province is handicapped to the point of being doomed in Quebec, even if his French is acceptable, as is that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. As long as the Bloc is around, led by a Quebecker, the largest number of francophones will vote for the Bloc. It is always possible that this pattern of not preferring one of their own could be broken, but it hasn't been for 141 years.
By winning between 38 and 54 seats, as the Bloc has done since 1993, majority governments have become difficult. (Prime minister Jean Chrétien did win three majorities under strange circumstances, a divided right.) National political parties - the bestriding, elastic political formations that helped for most of Canada's history to broker regional interests - are weakened, since none can easily form a truly national government.
Weaker national parties weaken Canada, which is the Bloc's ultimate objective, however cleverly it is disguised. Nor could an effective "coalition" be formed with the Bloc, since the party does not believe in governing or in Canada.
Parties of the 'Other'
Conservatives and Liberals in Quebec now appear like parties from the "other," that is to say, the rest of Canada. This perception, in turn, allows the Bloc to portray Quebec's interests as unrepresented in those parties and therefore threatened by them. This dynamic becomes a vicious circle, whereby national parties lack Quebec voices inside of them, and so make errors in Quebec and do not have enough spokespeople on the ground in Quebec to defend themselves and, by extension, Canadian federalism.
The Bloc is quite brilliant at depicting anything Ottawa does that is remotely favourable to Quebec as a consequence of Bloc pressure, whereas anything that does not correspond to Quebec's "interests" is the fault of these insensitive, threatening parties that represent the "other," and of the imprisoning federal structure.
No national party has found an answer to this political dilemma. The Harper Conservatives believed they had an answer, but it blew up in their faces. Its explosive failure will now cause people outside Quebec to wonder: What is the point of acquiescing to Quebec demands?
Trying to improve his party's standing in Quebec, beat down the Bloc and strengthen federalism as he saw it, Mr. Harper yielded to a list of Quebec demands, and invented one of his own, that the Québécois would be described as a "nation" in a united Canada. He did so without consulting many caucus members or premiers, some of whom were aghast, others of whom were unhappy.
This approach defied everything the Reform Party, and, indeed, governments of Alberta, had stood for: a Canada of 10 equal provinces with no special status for any. And yet the Preston Mannings of Alberta remained mute, presuming that the "nation" business and other sweeteners for Quebec were all in aid of the greater cause of a majority Conservative government.
The election results put paid to that calculation. The sweeteners failed. The Conservatives went nowhere in Quebec. The Bloc triumphed again, with leader Gilles Duceppe at the helm, winning 38 per cent of the popular vote and the largest number of seats. Everything the Conservatives had done for Quebec was forgotten in the rush back to the Bloc.
Nor did the resolution of the so-called "fiscal imbalance" work. This multibillion-dollar transfer of funds to the provinces was supposed to address a serious irritant in Quebec, where it was alleged that the province had onerous spending obligations but Ottawa had the money, or at least too much of it.
Mr. Harper duly transferred billions of dollars, as demanded, and proclaimed the "fiscal imbalance" resolved. Instead, on the eve of the campaign and therefore the time for maximum political damage, Quebec Premier Jean Charest pronounced the "fiscal imbalance" unresolved after all. More money was required, along with action on a shopping list of 13 other demands.
Harper's Rude (Re)introduction
Mr. Harper was thus rudely (re)introduced to the Quebec political culture, of which the Bloc is now an integral part. Quebeckers have a Premier who, although a federalist of a certain variety, is always demanding, never happy and seeking by all avenues to expand Quebec's powers, prestige and transfers. They have a Prime Minister in Ottawa, of whatever political stripe, who pays enormous attention to the province, owing to its 75 seats and the always-possible threat of national dismemberment. And in the Bloc Québécois, they have their very own, homegrown opposition party, always demanding, never satisfied, and seeking, like the Premier, to expand Quebec's powers, prestige and transfers.
The triangulation is perfect: three sides all trying to impress Quebeckers by defending their interests more resolutely than the other. The Bloc's role as part of this triangulation is another reason for its continuing success that goes much deeper than the suggestions that cuts to an arts program turned the course of the election.
In this culture, nothing is ever enough. Mr. Harper got Parliament to declare the Québécois as a "nation." Put it in the Constitution, demanded the Bloc. Mr. Harper declared the "fiscal imbalance" resolved. No, it's not at all, demanded Mr. Charest. Give Quebec another $880-million, demanded the Bloc. Mr. Harper said he would change the way the television and telecommunications regulatory agency operates to ensure greater francophone presence. Give us the entire power of culture and communications, demanded Mr. Charest.
In recent days, Mr. Charest has been playing host to the French President, signing agreements with him, taking Quebec's seat at la Francophonie, and taking credit for having pressed for a free-trade deal between the European Union and Canada. Mr. Harper has also been present, but a somewhat diminished figure, given his setbacks in Quebec.
Mr. Harper has already promised to acquiesce in other Quebec demands, including fettering the federal spending power. But nothing suggests, based on the Bloc's ongoing success and the comportment of a "federalist" Premier, that Mr. Harper's offerings will do more for him or Canadian federalism than what he has been trying.
The obvious question that will necessarily be asked in the wake of the Bloc's sixth consecutive success is why Ottawa should continue to play the losing game it has been playing, in which demands are met but never suffice, and in which a majority of francophones in Quebec send MPs to Ottawa who want no part of governing Canada while continuing to demand much from it.
Quebeckers' mental Bloc
In the wake of the Bloc Québécois's sixth consecutive electoral success, Stephen Harper has been reintroduced to the Quebec political culture