It is a common fallacy to suppose that what is must be: that human events unfold as they do not by accident or chance, but impelled by logical necessity, even inevitability.
We should beware, then, the tendency to attach some rational explanation to the continued existence of the Bloc Québécois, 20 years after its origins in the tumultuous final weeks of the Meech Lake accord, as if it were the natural product of some latent historical dynamic, or even served some useful purpose. Some things just are.
Or if there is a reason for the Bloc’s existence, it has more to do with the errors of its opponents than with the intentions of its founders, still less with Quebec’s—inevitable!—rendezvous with its separatist destiny. The Bloc has made no more contribution to that particular enterprise in the 20 years since it first set up shop than it has to the better governance of Canada. It has for most of its history been a declining political force, and would have been spent long ago but for periodic injections of adrenalin by the federalist parties.
Just how frivolous the whole project was can be seen in the events leading up to Lucien Bouchard’s break with Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government, in which he had been a minister—the Bloc’s effective, if not literal founding. Even the purported reason for the rupture, signalled with typically melodramatic flourish in the form of a congratulatory telegram to the Parti Québécois on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 1980 referendum—recalling “the sincerity, the pride and the generosity of the ‘Yes’ we defended at the time”—seems, in retrospect, almost embarrassingly trivial. Word had reached Bouchard that a parliamentary committee chaired by Jean Charest was preparing to recommend an amendment to Meech committing the federal government to preserve and promote official language minorities across the country—including the English minority in Quebec.
That this was only a committee, that it had not yet reported, that its recommendations might not have been adopted, that if the accord had been so amended it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to Quebec or its anglophone population, whose respective fates will be determined by forces much larger than sub-clauses to sub-clauses of constitutional accords—none of this mattered to Bouchard, who had by then gone supernova at this “betrayal.” In a speech the day after his resignation from cabinet, Bouchard raged that “Quebec has compromised. It has stripped itself naked. It has nothing more to give but still it is being asked to give. What more could we give up if not our honour and what’s left of our pride.”
But then, as was clear even then, Bouchard’s resignation had nothing do with the committee’s report. As environment minister, Bouchard had set out a vastly interventionist agenda—described by more than one critic as the most centralizing in the country’s history—but had found his ambitions thwarted, in a way that ambitious ministers often do. He began to suspect plots against him: in particular, someone had leaked word that Bouchard would side with the Americans at an international conference on global warming (oh God, plus ça change) in Bergen, Norway. Infuriated, frustrated, bored, Bouchard began sending increasingly overt signals, from various European centres, of his unhappiness. But what really seems to have set him off is that, rather than phone him himself, Mulroney had Charest call him. On this slight has the last two decades depended.
What was true of the man is true of the cause. Meech itself, whose acrimonious end precipitated the departure of several more Conservative and Liberal MPs from Quebec and eventually led to the Bloc’s formation, was built on just such invented grievances: notably, the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, which allegedly reduced the powers of the Quebec government, allegedly over Quebec’s objections, with much alleged damage to the federalist cause. In fact it did none of those things (as Mulroney himself argued at the time). Far from the centralizing document of myth, the 1982 Constitution gave an enormous range of powers to the provinces in general, and to Quebec in particular. It strengthened provincial control over natural resources, on which Quebec’s economy is especially dependent. It entrenched a federal obligation to provide equalization payments, of which Quebec is the largest recipient. It gave the provinces control of the amending formula, together with the right to opt out of any amendments that reduced their powers—with compensation, in matters of education or culture. It entrenched French as an official language, along with Quebec’s one-third representation on the Supreme Court.
The only conceivable way in which it reduced Quebec’s powers was through the Charter of Rights. But it also provided an out, in the form of the notwithstanding clause, which Quebec has invoked repeatedly. And, while other provinces had recourse to the same override, only Quebec was allowed to opt out of the general obligation to provide minority-language schooling to the children of parents educated in the same tongue. In any event, Quebecers themselves did not regard this an imposition: the Charter was massively popular in the province. The legislation itself passed with the support of 72 of 75 Quebec MPs. True, a majority of the Quebec national assembly, then governed by the PQ, supported a motion to oppose it. But to accept that vote as legitimate, while ignoring the votes of Quebec’s federal MPs, is simply to restate the separatist argument: that the only true representatives of the people of Quebec are the members of the national assembly. That’s an odd thing for federalists to concede. But it’s odder still of the Bloc: if that’s the case, what are they doing in Ottawa?
That there would be a surge of support for the Bloc was understandable, in the immediate aftermath of Meech’s collapse: as 1982 was the pretext for Meech, so the failure of the accord, and of its Charlottetown sequel, became the main argument for separation. In 1993, its first general election, the Bloc won 49 per cent of the vote in Quebec, nearly level with what the Yes side would obtain in the referendum two years later. Yet no sooner had the referendum been defeated than support for separation, and the Bloc, began to fall: in the 1997 election, the Bloc won just 38 per cent of the vote. And, just as patriation did not result in the predicted surge of nationalist outrage, neither did the 1998 Supreme Court reference on secession, or the Clarity Act of the following year: in 2000, the Bloc obtained just under 40 per cent of the vote—to 44 per cent for the Liberals.
What revived the Bloc? Two things: the civil war that erupted shortly afterward within the federal Liberal party, with its unpleasant echoes of the Meech fracas, and the sponsorship scandal. In the 2004 election, the BQ again won 49 per cent of the vote. But soon after it resumed its slide: to 42 per cent in 2006, and 38 per cent in 2008. To be sure, it is troubling that, 20 years after Meech, upward of three in eight Quebecers should continue to feel so disconnected from Canada that they are prepared to support a party of, in effect, placeholders, whatever good offices its members may perform individually. But it’s as significant that the Bloc, despite its self-assigned mandate to “prepare the ground for sovereignty,” is itself constrained to behave in a respectful, constructive fashion. This is no Sinn Fein, refusing to take its seats, or disrupting Parliamentary proceedings a la Charles Parnell, and it would not get elected if it did. All it can do is occupy seats that would otherwise go to federalist parties, thus making it less likely any of them can win a majority (though not impossible: Jean Chrétien did it three times, the first prime minister in 60 years to carry the country without carrying Quebec). It is a kind of nullity, perfectly expressing the ambivalence of nationalist voters in Quebec: neither loyal to Canada nor too much exercised to get out of it.
What can the rest of us do about the Bloc? In the short term, not much. At some point, some issue will arise that will excite disaffected Quebecers to want to participate in the government of Canada again; until such time, there is nothing we can do to prevent them from expressing their anomie via the Bloc. But we can at least stop actively propping it up. We could, first of all, reform our system of party financing, removing the public subsidy that now provides nearly 90 per cent of the Bloc’s funding. Second, we could make the televised election debates bilingual, rather than segregating them by language: the French debate has tended de facto to become the Quebec debate, giving unwonted prestige and prominence to the Bloc leader. (Indeed, on some occasions he has seemed almost to be playing host to his rivals.) Last, we could change our electoral system, with its bias to parties that, like the Bloc, have a concentrated geographic base. Through six elections, the Bloc has averaged in the low 40s in the popular vote in Quebec, yet has routinely taken upward of two-thirds of the seats. In a more proportional system, it would win 25 to 30 seats, not 45 or 50.
Mostly, however, we can stop trying to “solve” the Quebec question. Every time we do, from Meech to Charlottetown to the fiscal imbalance to the Québécois-nation resolution, we simply inflame passions, raise expectations, and set ourselves up for failure. Whereas when we just get on with things, support for separation fades. Let the Bloc wither, in its own good time—but on its own dime.