Every weekday morning at 9 a.m. when the House of Commons is in session, the four remaining Bloc Québécois MPs venture from their offices scattered about Parliament Hill to room 577 of the Confederation Building for their daily caucus meeting. It is an inauspicious venue for a party that for nearly two decades held the majority of Quebec’s seats, not to mention a near monopoly of virtue over the province’s political mindset. The room is roughly 10 by 20 feet and painted a pale blue. Bloc MP André Bellavance secured it last June, and then outfitted it with a table, chairs and a television. Fellow Bloc MP Louis Plamondon, the longest-serving MP in the country, recently joked that the room is so small they can hardly get the door closed once everyone is inside.
On one crisp Tuesday morning in October, room 577 was abuzz with the news of Michael Moldaver, Stephen Harper’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Moldaver, an Ontario native, doesn’t speak French, and to the Bloc his appointment was another linguistic slight on the part of the Conservative government. A month earlier, Harper had appointed as his director of communications a newspaper columnist who doesn’t speak French, and had recently announced that Michael Ferguson, a unilingual anglophone, would be the next auditor general.
The reddest of red-meat issues, though, was the government’s plan to scrap the long gun registry. A majority of Quebecers support the registry, and in November the province’s national assembly passed a unanimous motion opposing its demise. Yet the Conservative government was pressing ahead regardless—and would scrap the registry database itself, ensuring no other government could ever take up the cause. The two dossiers went to Bloc MP Maria Mourani, who serves as the Bloc’s spokesperson on both public security and official languages. Registering firearms and protecting the French language are ancient Bloc Québécois warhorses, and prior to last spring’s federal election Mourani would have been the go-to face of Quebec’s perpetual opposition to all things Conservative and/or Canadian.
Yet on May 2, when Quebecers elected 58 NDP MPs, Mourani and her colleagues went from being Quebec’s political alpha dogs to a pack of strays: with four MPs, the party has less of a presence in Quebec than the Liberals and the hated Conservatives. Quebecers, who just three years ago sent 49 resolutely separatist MPs to Ottawa on their behalf, are on an extended honeymoon with the decidedly and quaintly Canadian NDP. So is Quebec’s media: the Bloc has been all but ignored in favour of its orange and green colleagues.
In fact, the Bloc only remains a party in the minds of its MPs and its dwindling number of supporters. With fewer than the requisite 12 MPs, it has lost official party status, along with the staff and research budgets that go with it. Bloquistes used to be among the most active on the Hill; today, as independent MPs, they aren’t even permitted to sit on parliamentary committees. Prior to the election, the Bloc had a staff of 300; it now has 12.
There is no party whip—or even a leader. Once upon a time, the party asked roughly a dozen questions a day during question period. It took the negotiating skills of Bellavance, the man who literally found seats for his caucus colleagues to sit on, to finagle four questions a week for his de facto party. What’s more, Bloc membership is down to roughly 36,000; some 17,000 people have left the party or let their membership lapse since May 2. “We work with the tools we have,” Mourani said on that Tuesday morning, as she began another day of what is surely and suddenly the loneliest job in Ottawa: being a member of Parliament with the Bloc Québécois.
It’s a marvel the Bloc still exists at all. Founded in 1991 by a group of disgruntled Liberals and Progressive Conservatives from Quebec, and led by former PC cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard, the Bloc’s MPs were to be sovereigntist shock troops in Ottawa, preparing the ground for an eventual referendum in Quebec. Win or lose, Bouchard believed the party should then disappear, rather than become “part of the furniture.”
The trouble was, the Bloc became very good at what it did. Even after Bouchard took his own advice and left the party following the referendum loss in 1995, the Bloc systematically won over half of Quebec’s seats, in large part thanks to Bouchard’s successor, Gilles Duceppe. A poofy-haired union organizer when first elected in 1990, Duceppe grew into the role. During 2004’s sponsorship scandal, Duceppe channelled Quebec’s collective fury at the Liberal government’s plan to sell them the merits of federalism via a secretive and thoroughly corrupt public works project. His popularity exploded as a result.
Duceppe’s indignant swagger sometimes went overboard: more than once, he referred to federalist Quebec MPs as “Uncle Toms,” thereby implying Quebecers were themselves slaves. Yet his ubiquity and deftness with a quote only benefitted the party. According to Influence Communication, a Montreal-based media monitoring service, Duceppe was consistently among the top 10 most referenced personalities in Quebec between 2005 and 2008—which, in a hockey-obsessed province with its own star-making system, is saying something. Contrast that with the Bloc today, absent Duceppe, who lost his seat during the Bloc’s electoral rout: in a recent analysis by Influence Communication, the four Bloc MPs combined only muster the same media attention as Raphael Diaz, the number four defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens.
It can make for a very frustrating experience if you happen to be one of those four MPs. The day the Conservatives announced legislation putting an end to the long gun registry, Maria Mourani gave an impassioned sound clip decrying the “dictatorial nature” of the Conservative government in front of the television cameras. Trouble was, more than half the assembled reporters had left once NDP MPs Jack Harris and Françoise Boivin had delivered a similar (though less eloquent) spiel. An hour or so later, Mourani was in her office watching the resulting news coverage. “They didn’t use me,” she said, shaking her head.
Her second indignity came later that day during question period. Tacked onto the end of debate time, Mourani’s question about Harper’s unilingual appointees—and Industry Minister Christian Paradis’s canned answer—was drowned out by the din of departing MPs.
“History is repeating itself,” says Bloc MP Louis Plamondon, who is now sitting back where he was when he left the Conservative party in 1990. “Everything has to be restarted.”
Friendly and conversational, Plamondon is the picture of calm, despite the bad news. The Bloc’s finances, he points out, are in good shape, with $1.25 million in the bank: “Our electoral offices have never been so rich.” Yes, the Conservatives will end the per-vote subsidy, the yearly $2-a-vote allowance that has put roughly $22.5 million into Bloc coffers since 2004. But, he says, no other party can match the Bloc’s presence (or fundraising potential) in each of Quebec’s 75 electoral districts. “The NDP is starting from zero,” he says. “We have members, we have money, we have an organization that wants to continue.”
The next step is for the party to elect a new president on Dec. 12, and the three candidates in the running—Mourani, fellow MP Jean-François Fortin and former Bloc MP Daniel Paillé—have all said they would take the party back to its raison d’être of promoting Quebec sovereignty in Ottawa, point final. “We were so pertinent that we forgot to be impertinent,” says Fortin. “Essentially, we were helping federalism work. We need to get back to the basics of why we exist, and that is to build a country.”
The question, of course, is whether Quebecers will follow them down that well-worn path. The most recent debate between Mourani, Fortin and Paillé was a multi-platform, webcast feast whereby candidates were bombarded with questions from the audience, both physically and virtually, via Twitter. All three spoke of bringing the Bloc back to its roots. “The Bloc exists for one reason: to promote sovereignty in Ottawa,” said Paillé. After the debate, though, came the disappointing results: all of 300 people tuned in to watch. It was largely ignored in the next day’s papers. It spoke to a harsh new truth: the Bloc can still make noise, but hardly anyone is listening.