By ROBERT BOTHWELL
The Bloc Québécois (BQ) is a provincially-based federal party dedicated to the achievement of an independent, French-language nation of Quebec. Although there had been individual separatists in the federal Parliament before, they had no organized political party behind them. The party roots lay in René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois which had come to power in 1976 and governed well, even if the referendum on separation in 1980 had been lost.
The direct political origins of the Bloc Québécois can be traced to two events in 1984. The new leader of the Progressive Conservative party, Brian Mulroney, himself a Quebecker, decided to recruit former separatists to bolster the ranks of his party in Quebec. It was a logical decision: the Conservatives needed help. Where better to look than among people who had been repeatedly defeated by the politically dominant Liberals, and who hated then Liberal leader and Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau? Mulroney hoped that his recruits were more strongly opposed to Trudeau than they were to acceptance of Canada; and his recruits for their part hoped and expected that in return for their support Mulroney, who succeeded Trudeau as Prime Minister, would promote a looser Canada.
The other event of 1984 was the defeat of Jean Chrétien by John Turner in a contest to be Trudeau’s successor as leader of the Liberal party. It was the beginning of a feud between Chrétien’s supporters and Turner’s, and it found a battlefield in Mulroney’s promotion of a series of changes in the Canadian constitution, called the Meech Lake Accord of 1987. The effect of the changes was to give Quebec and the provinces generally more power over federal institutions, and it placed Quebec, then headed by a nationalistically-inclined Liberal, Robert Bourassa, in a position to seek and quite possibly get more powers in future constitutional negotiations. Turner enthusiastically accepted the Meech Lake package, as did all the provincial premiers; but for Meech Lake to become law, it had to be ratified by every provincial legislature within three years, that is, by June 1990.
But, the refusal of the Liberal government of Newfoundland, delay by the Liberal government of New Brunswick and resistance by the Liberal opposition in Manitoba (among others), and a campaign led by the retired Pierre Trudeau, resulted in the collapse of Meech Lake just as the federal Liberals were choosing a new leader. The anti-Trudeau forces among Quebec Liberals backed Paul Martin Jr. who, in turn, backed Meech Lake, while Trudeau’s fans supported Jean Chrétien. When Chrétien won, some of the Quebec delegates walked out, calling Chrétien a traitor. They included two members of parliament who quit the Liberal party. At the same time, the most prominent former separatist in Mulroney’s cabinet, Lucien Bouchard, resigned from cabinet and proclaimed that Canada was a failure. He then led a group of eight ex-Liberals and ex-Conservatives in the House of Commons who organized themselves in 1991 as the Bloc Québécois, with the tacit encouragement of Premier Bourassa of Quebec, who saw them as increasing his bargaining power.
The charismatic Bouchard led his new party to 54 out of Quebec’s 75 seats in the 1993 federal election, and unexpectedly became leader of the opposition in Parliament. Chrétien and the Liberals formed the government, but the new prime minister faced the fact that he was far less popular in Quebec than Bouchard. So, ironically, was the new separatist premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, but it was Parizeau who decided that he had a unique opportunity to take advantage of Chrétien’s unpopularity and public opinion in Quebec, which was, he believed, trending toward support for independence. Parizeau called a referendum for October 1995, only to discover that support for separatism was less certain than he had imagined. Humiliatingly, he had to call in Bouchard, whose political talents were far superior to his own. They almost won the referendum – but, having lost, Parizeau had to go and was replaced as premier of Quebec by Bouchard.
The Bloc Québécois was, in a sense, marooned in Ottawa. Its issue, separatism, was indefinitely postponed. Eventually it found a stable leader in a Montreal MP, Gilles Duceppe, but Duceppe lost ground in two elections, 1997 and 2000, to Jean Chrétien. He did better against Paul Martin, Jr., in 2004 and largely maintained his party’s position against the more formidable Stephen Harper in 2006 and 2008, assisted by Harper’s maladroit campaign style in Quebec.
In some senses, the Bloc faces an existential dilemma. Its whole reason for being is to promote Quebec separatism. It accepts and even exploits Canada’s democratic constitution. Its MPs participate in debates and votes in the House of Commons, sometimes quite effectively and even constructively, and it accepts the legality of federal laws. Its members pay federal taxes and collect federal pensions and other subsidies. Some of its MPs desert from time to time to join other parties. Whether it likes it or not in principle, it is in practice part of the federal system – including the federal party system. Ironically, the BQ is a sign that Canada works.
Next Instalment: Sir John A. Macdonald: Canada’s First Prime Minister
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