The Bloc paradox

Never beaten at the polls and never farther from its cardinal ambition, the party is a victim of its own success

Élection fédérale 2009

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe takes questions during a news conference on Sept. 2, 2009, in Bois-des-Filions, Que.
Apart from the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois has, intriguingly, become the most electorally successful political party in the country.
Since its debut election campaign in 1993, the Bloc has never been beaten by a federalist party. Not in six elections. The demise of the Bloquistes is often predicted. It never happens. They are entrenched. In the next campaign, they are on course to rout the Liberals and Conservatives in Quebec again.
Their impact has been major. It was the Bloc's semi-inclusion in a proposed coalition government last fall that speeded the coalition possibility to its death. The Bloc's success was among the factors that brought on the Liberal sponsorship scandal. Today, the Bloc's triumphs are seen as creating a political dynamic wherein minority governments in Ottawa are cripplingly common. Winning a majority, given the BQ's hold on Quebec's seats, requires a party to practically sweep Ontario. The Chrétien Liberals did that – but only with the help of a woefully divided right.
The Bloc's strength can be seen in the way the rest of the country kowtows to their nationalist interests. With the election of Stephen Harper's government in 2006, the West, bitter for a long time at Ottawa's catering to Quebec, finally “got in,” as the expression had it. But instead of any redress of history, the Conservatives took favouritism a step further, cozying up to nationalists in granting the Québécois nation status. On the red-meat Prairies, there was hardly a whimper of protest.
The coddling of the BQ sees Canadian taxpayers subsidize the separatist party to the tune of millions of dollars to run its election campaigns. In that they have to campaign in only one province, the system absurdly favours it over federalist parties. The Bloc is allowed to participate in the English-language debates while running no candidates outside Quebec. Again, nothing is done. We wouldn't want to risk offending their delicate sensibilities.
But, for all its inroads, the Bloc has no reason to celebrate.
There's a great paradox at work here, a rollout of unintended consequences. The Bloc successes have bred failure. The better the BQ does, the further it gets from its goal of sovereignty. The separatists were closest to realizing that ambition in the early-to-mid-nineties, shortly after the Bloc arrived on the scene. Since that time, support for the sovereignty option, despite all the Bloc victories, has consistently been in decline.
The Bloc, it can be mischievously argued, has served the cause of a united Canada. Rarely over the past half-century has Canadian unity been as solid as it is today. It may well be that the Bloc, with its imposing fed-baiting presence in Ottawa, suffices for many Quebeckers as their instrument of sovereignty. It gives vent to pride, to autonomist passions. It wins concessions for the franchise.
If we were to take away the Bloc, if only Canada-minded federalist parties represented Quebeckers in Ottawa, a different scenario is easily imaginable. Conditions could well exist for a more spirited and fractious separatist movement.
Benefiting from the shrewd leadership of Gilles Duceppe and a smart, disciplined caucus, the Bloc has been able to address many of Quebec's grievances. But its steady progress now sees it scraping the barrel in search of meaningful injustices to fortify its underlying pathology (witness its current election advertising planning).
During the Bloc's time in Ottawa, the country has become more tolerant, not helping the BQ cause. Just last week, a poll showed Canadians largely in favour of bilingualism. The Harper Conservatives might have expected to goad the Bloquistes and jack up the separatist appetite, but were intent instead on reviving the Western Canada-Quebec nationalist coalition that gave Brian Mulroney's Tories two majority governments. Their charm offensive imploded with their culture cuts in the last election.
They have redressed that problem, but are finding that the Bloc's strength is next to unbreakable. No one could have imagined this when Lucien Bouchard bolted the Conservatives to form the Bloc in 1990. Then it was viewed as a short-term party to help the sovereigntists on the road to separatist heaven.
Heaven never came. The Bloquistes scored at the polls and won concessions in Ottawa, but in so doing moved further from realizing their cardinal ambition. As such, we should salute them as builders of Canadian unity and wish them continued success. They are one of the great backfiring stories of our time.

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