Once again, the outcome of the federal election in Quebec came as a surprise. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were counting on the collapse of the NDP to gain seats here to compensate for losses elsewhere and maintain their majority. When the election campaign began, the polls predicted two types of races in Quebec. One was for first place between the Liberals and Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, who stressed their openness to Quebec’s priorities and recruited several star candidates. The other saw the NDP, like the Bloc, fighting for survival, with the Greens hoping to make a breakthrough. As is rarely the case, Quebec was seen as a real battleground, with the major parties agreeing to hold two debates in French compared to only one in English.
However, nothing happened as planned. The NDP’s losses indeed proved significant, with 15 fewer Quebec MPs. But it was the Bloc Québécois that benefited, gaining 22 seats, while the Liberals lost five.
How can we explain the return of the Bloc Québécois? In my view, the key is that, unlike his predecessors Stephen Harper and Paul Martin, who were careful to be respectful of Quebec’s jurisdictions, Justin Trudeau paved the way for the Bloc’s return.
Quebec’s Unique Political Dynamic
We can never repeat it enough: there are two distinct party systems in Canada. One operates in Quebec, the other in the rest of Canada. The distinct society that is Quebec manifests itself during federal elections.
It is important to remember that Quebecers have little interest in federal politics. Their national political stage is in Quebec City. Their national parliament is the Quebec National Assembly. In this context, except when there is a crisis or during an election campaign, federal politics does not make headlines and remains a secondary subject of discussion. As a result, any major movements of support toward or away from federal parties almost exclusively manifest themselves during election campaigns. In 2011, it was the NDP that took advantage of this; in 2015 it was the Liberals.
The presence of the Bloc Québécois also makes for a different political dynamic. The centre-periphery cleavage still plays a role. Beyond the language issue, federal political parties are, at least in part, judged from the perspective of federal-provincial relations and Quebec’s autonomy. While Stephen Harper had sought to respect provincial jurisdictions, Justin Trudeau remobilized this divide. It is in this context that we can understand the effect of the intervention of Quebec Premier François Legault at the beginning of the campaign. The key factor was the Quebec secularism law, which by then had entered the federal campaign.
Yves-François Blanchet’s Autonomist Strategy
The election of Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec in 2018 marked a turning point in Quebec’s political life. It was a real realignment election where the divide between Yes and No over independence was shattered. Putting this question on the back burner did not mean that Quebecers were no longer concerned about their identity. Quite the contrary: the CAQ government’s autonomist vision is expressed in Quebec assertiveness within Canada, and is widely supported by voters. Legault is more popular today than on the day he was elected and remains the premier with the strongest support in Canada.
The erosion of the Yes-No cleavage on independence did not happen overnight. The Parti Québécois has experienced a gradual electoral decline, while in the 2011 and 2015 federal elections the Bloc Québécois failed to achieve recognized party status. What we saw manifested was the volatility at the federal level of Quebec voters, who tried the NDP in 2011 and the Liberals in 2015.
Does the return of the Bloc Québécois herald the return of the good old cleavage associated with Quebec’s independence? Is the Bloc’s new status, as some have suggested, the result of voters’ remorse for relegating the Parti Québécois to the position of fourth party in the National Assembly? On the contrary.
In an attempt to win Quebec votes, both the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois ran autonomist campaigns. Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet did not campaign on independence. Save for a few days prior to the vote, he actually avoided talking about it at all, in stark contrast with former leader Martine Ouellet. The new leader of the Bloc focused primarily on issues emphasized by the Legault government.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, little known in Quebec at the beginning of the campaign, also took the autonomist path. He made his party highly competitive, with some pre-campaign polls placing the Conservatives first in the hearts of Quebecers. But during the campaign he proved unable to define himself on this axis, allowing his opponents to focus attention on his pro-life position on abortion. In Quebec, social conservatism has no following. When he tried to refocus on his party’s openness to Quebec autonomy in an important speech just a few days before the vote, it was too late.
Does the Bloc’s resurgence indicate a new passion among Quebecers? I see it more as the result of a process of elimination. Justin Trudeau disappointed and could not win enough seats to have a majority. Jagmeet Singh was unable to reverse the NDP’s downward trend, leaving his Quebec deputy, Alexandre Boulerice, as the only survivor of the 2011 orange wave. And Andrew Scheer was unable to connect with the Quebec electorate.
This campaign did not arouse passion in Quebec. With the independence issue put aside, the Bloc Québécois has once again become a safe haven for many voters. With 32 of the 78 Quebec seats, the Bloc made an important comeback and will be the third party in the House. Still, it was unable to win more seats than the Liberals. With 35 seats, Justin Trudeau can say that his party finished first in Quebec.
But that does not mean he will be able to claim that his party speaks for Quebec. At the birth of the Bloc Québécois in 1990, one of its objectives was precisely to avoid the trap of “double legitimacy” as it existed under Justin Trudeau’s father. By winning a majority of seats in Quebec, Pierre Elliott Trudeau claimed to be able to speak for Quebec just as much as René Lévesque did. Justin Trudeau, with a minority of seats, won’t be able to make such a claim.
With an autonomist mandate, Yves-François Blanchet will not be able to interpret a vote for the Bloc as a vote for independence. Still, Bloc supporters hope to win support for the cause by drawing attention to any instances of the incoming government encroaching on Quebec’s jurisdictions. Will Justin Trudeau stop giving the Bloc oxygen? It doesn’t seem to be in his blood.