Quebec sovereignty camp gets confidence boost

Bloc Québécois gets best result in one decade in Canadian federal election

Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet in election success celebration.
Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet in election success celebration. Author: Bloc Québécois
After several electoral defeats that seemed poised to continue in 2019, the Quebec sovereignty camp has suddenly regained some confidence after the Bloc Québécois achieved its best electoral performance since 2008 in the federal election held yesterday 21 October in Canada. Having secured 32 seats, the pro-sovereignty party will have more influence in the Ottawa Parliament, as no party achieved an absolute majority. Independence, however, is still a long way off.

The Bloc came second in Quebec —the only province where it ran— with 32.5% of the votes, only behind the Liberal Party, with 34.2% of the votes and 35 seats, three more than the sovereignty party. Far behind, the Conservative Party won 16% of the votes and 10 seats. The New Democratic Party (NDP) won 10.7% of the votes and one seat.

At the federal level, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won again but lost the absolute majority it had. Trudeau can now either seek to form a coalition government with the NDP, which has captured 24 seats, or form a minority government and establish a parliamentary agreement with that centre-left party —this is now the most likely option— or with the Bloc itself.

Unexpected Bloc’s resurgence

Just half a year ago, polls predicted the BQ would score a very poor result, even less than the 10 seats obtained four years ago, which in turn had already been a poor result for a party that had surpassed the 50 seat mark with Lucien Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe at the front. In fact, some analysts even predicted the party would disappear more or less imminently.

Such a resurgence has been led by Yves-François Blanchet, former Quebec government minister (2012-2014) as a member of the Parti Québécois. Blanchet became BQ leader in January 2019, at a time no one wanted to. His campaign has put aside independence claims, and has instead focused on the defense of Quebec’s secular identity and French language, and the opposition to new pipelines eventually crossing the province.

Blanchet has shown willingness to “collaborate” with the new Canadian government if it is for Quebec’s benefit. The Bloc leader has also predicted that a pro-sovereignty majority will again exist one day in Quebec, opening the door to independence. But Blanchet has too pointed out that this is not the mandate the party received yesterday.

The Bloc’s election platform includes some measures to increase Quebec self-government, such as a federal law to grant the province “environmental sovereignty,” or agreements with the federal government so that Quebec authorities can “conduct their own international relations” on matters within their competence, “including the conclusion of treaties.” It also seeks to introduce a law to abolish the Clarity Act, a federal regulation that stipulates that the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons has the final say on whether an eventual majority in favour of the secession of a province is clear enough or not.

Resetting itself to the political arena

Trudeau, as explained, does not need the Bloc’s support to govern —NDP MPs will be enough. It is not foreseeable that the prime minister will agree to negotiate such great proposals if the tone exhibited in the election campaign as regards Quebec is to be believed. Trudeau defended the province’s powers in the area of immigration and opened the door to studying some improvements in the protection of French, but he did not go much further than that.

To the sovereignty camp, however, the priority right now was not to achieve major constitutional changes, but to recover some prominent role it had played both in the Quebec and Canadian political arena. It should be recalled that the Parti Quebecois —the pro-sovereignty party contesting provincial elections, with a very similar ideological orientation to the Bloc— suffered in 2018 the worst result of its entire history: 17% of the votes and 10 seats. Ideological disorientation —tilting from centre-right to centre-left— and competition from two emerging parties —conservative autonomist CAQ and the left-wing pro-independence Quebec Solidaire— help explain the decline of the classical pro-sovereignty duo PQ-BQ.

So Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer was probably not misguided when he said in a campaign debate that “Blanchet’s priority” was “to revive the sovereignty movement.”

Despite the confidence boost that yesterday’s result entails, it’s still a long way to anything close to independence. Both the PQ and the BQ argue that, sooner or later, Quebec will vote for the third time —after the defeats in the 1980 and 1995 referendums— on independence from Canada. Under the current conditions, however, it is impossible for them to do so with any prospect of success: opinion polls indicate that barely 25% to 30% Quebecois would now vote for independence, was a referendum held. In any case, first of all it will be necessary for the sovereignty parties to regain a majority in the National Assembly of Quebec. Still with opinion polls, if an election were now called to the provincial legislature, pro-autonomy CAQ would obtain an even larger majority than in 2018, while the PQ would lose even more votes and Quebec Solidaire would stagnate.