Register Monday | March 4 | 2024

The New Face of Separatism

Why immigrant voters in Quebec are abandoning the Liberals for the Bloc Qu├ębecois

Noon on Sunday in Montreal is an odd time to deliver a political speech—the devout are church-bound; the lazy, bed-ridden. Sundays in the fall have a pleasantly lethargic feel, perfect for raking leaves in jeans or playing football in a sweater; perfect for anything but the pressed-suit formality of politics. But this particular Sunday—the day before Halloween—was not just a time for parents to fret over their children’s costumes. This year, on the tenth anniversary of the razor-thin federalist victory of 1995, Quebecers were being reminded once again that there is never a bad time to talk politics.

Gilles Duceppe took the podium to address an arena full of Bloc Québecois delegates at the party convention. The country’s political journalists have already spilled enormous amounts of ink and chewed up generous quantities of airtime rehashing the same mesmerizing details of what the Ottawa Citizen called “Canada’s near-death experience”: How the federalist camp told Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney to stay home and the “No” side remained rudderless until the last days of the referendum campaign; how Lucien Bouchard lost a leg to a flesh-eating disease and entered the race to galvanize the “Yes” side; how the federal Liberal government desperately dismissed several election laws and financed a massive unity-rally in Montreal; how only 54,000 votes separated the two sides on the morning of October 31, 1995, the No-side edging victory by one percentage point; how Jacques Parizeau, the hard line Parti Québecois premier, resigned after blaming “money and the ethnic vote” for the loss.

Ten years to the day, Duceppe’s speech focused largely on the sponsorship scandal. The convention is themed around “Imaginer le Québec souverain” (“Imagine a sovereign Quebec”)—using Quebec’s licence plate slogan, “Je me souviens,” as a leitmotif—and the delegates did just that; debating plans for an army, a foreign policy, and a commitment to sustainable development. Some may call it daydreaming, but here on the convention floor it was called nation building.

The party and its leader have come a long way in ten years. In an age where the strictures of political correctness are sacred, Parizeau’s infamous 1995 comments dealt a crippling blow to the Bloc Québecois—they have spent the better part of the last ten years trying to recover from those statements, dispelling the crude stereotypes they evoke and convincing people that sovereignty can be inclusive. Ten years on, as the Parti Québecois is embroiled in a chaotic nine-person leadership race, it is Duceppe’s Bloc Québecois that has quietly taken on the responsibility of selling a separatism that is more easily digestible. It is the Bloc Quebecois that is forging the new face of sovereignty.

The new face of sovereignty itself contains some new faces, and one of these belongs to Vivian Barbot. When the Bloc Quebecois chose her to run as a candidate in the next election, they were looking for a giant-killer. Barbot will be running in Papineau, a riding in Montreal’s East End that Pierre Pettigrew has held since 1996. Along with the nomination of Stéphane Dion, Pettigrew was part of then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s strategy to deal with the unity crisis that followed the referendum by promoting prominent Quebec federalists to cabinet. But if Pettigrew, an Oxford-educated expert in international relations, was once a star candidate, he has since lost some of his lustre—at least as far as his constituents are concerned. In the 2004 election he won his riding, with its population of 103,000, by a margin of only 334 votes. In other words, the Bloc believes Pettigrew is acting on borrowed time.

Barbot’s not taking anything for granted though. “We have to start again from the first vote,” she says, pointing out that it’s tempting to think that one only has 400 voters to convince. She will be making her inaugural foray into politics when the next election is called, which—if Prime Minister Paul Martin keeps his word—will be no later than this spring. Sending a rookie against a veteran in so pivotal a riding may seem like a fatalistic strategy, but Barbot may just be too good a candidate for the Bloc to pass up.

She has spent the past four years as the very vocal and very public president of Quebec’s Women’s Federation. With Barbot at the helm the organization successfully lobbied for several changes to Quebec’s labour and welfare laws. Before that she was a well-known labour organizer. Needless to say, she is comfortable making speeches behind a microphone. But it is not so much about having a name and a face that people recognize—it is who recognizes that name and face that is important. Barbot is a Haitian exile. Like Governor General Michaëlle Jean, she was forced to flee François “Papa Doc” Duvallier’s despotic regime and, since coming to Quebec, Barbot has devoted much time to helping immigrants integrate into Quebec culture.

“Minorities don’t often express themselves in society,” the retired CEGEP teacher says, adding that her electoral platform will be a continuation of what has been a lifelong concern. It’s a message that will resonate in a riding where close to 40 percent of the population are immigrants and over 30 percent are visible minorities. According to Barbot, it’s also the second-poorest riding in the province. The unemployment rate is nearly double the national average. Barbot has promised to fight for more affordable housing units.

While Barbot’s threat to Pettigrew is real, it first has to overcome one of the great political truths of this country—that immigrants vote Liberal. A study performed by Jack Jedwab of the Association for Canadian Studies found that in the 2000 election the Liberals won 50 percent of Quebec ridings where the non-francophone electorate exceeded 20 percent. They call it “the 20 percent rule.”

This voting trend first emerged in the early years of the Trudeau regime when immigration patterns shifted and non-Europeans became the majority of newcomers to the country. The Grits at the time ushered in a series of policies aimed at fostering multiculturalism, and they have been reaping the electoral benefits in Quebec and Ontario ever since. In what some people believe was not quite a coincidence, the federal

government processed 40,000 citizenship applications in Quebec during 1994 and 1995, more than twice the annual average. After anglophones and allophones voted overwhelmingly for the “No” side in 1995, Parizeau's post-referendum comments only reinforced the perception that the Parti Québecois' vision of an independent Quebec was ethnocentric.

By the end of the millennium however, support for sovereignty had risen to about 20 percent among allophones. A more recent Leger Marketing poll suggests that number now hovers around 30 percent. Sovereigntists are eager to turn Liberal logic on its head. Not long before he resigned as Parti Quebecois leader, Bernard Landry told The Canadian Press that it was immigrants and Quebecers under the age of forty who "incarnate those who will manage a sovereign Quebec."

Although the Bloc saw its seat count drop to thirty-three in the 2000 election, that number jumped to fifty-four in 2004, its caucus now peppered with visible minorities, including the only black member of parliament, Maka Kotto. Kotto's riding, Saint Lambert, with its significant ethnic population, had voted Liberal in 2000 and 1997. Alfred-Pellan and Vaudreuil-Soulanges, two other allophone-heavy ridings with a Liberal tradition, voted Bloc last time as well. The Bloc also came within a whisper in several other Liberal ridings supposedly protected by Jedwab's 20 percent rule. The reason, according to one specialist in Quebec politics, is not so much a spike in support for sovereignty among ethnic groups as it is a "de-sovereigntized" Bloc Québecois image.

“Bloc support is a bit like our sympathy for Asterix and the Gauls fighting the Romans,” says Francois-Pierre Gingras, referring to the classic comic series. Gingras, a professor of political science at the University of Ottawa, believes the Bloc has refashioned itself to emphasize its appeal as an underdog, while putting the sovereignty mandate on the back burner. He points to the fiery speeches Bloc members like Deputy Leader Michel Gauthier make in the House of Commons, passionate laments about bad government and Quebec’s ignored interests. “They are capitalizing on a general dissatisfaction with politics.”

Though most polls show support for sovereignty at its highest levels since 1995, Gingras says most of it is so-called “soft” support. Most polls don’t ask “the intensity of support,” and those that do indicate that widespread enthusiasm for sovereignty is gone. But that doesn’t mean the Bloc can’t be appealing to large chunks of the population as a guilt-free “protest” vote. “If you vote for the Bloc there’s not a lot to worry about because they’ll never take power,” he reasons.

The Bloc, Gingras says, is free of the hard line element that infuses the core of its cousin, the Parti Québecois. Bernard Landry’s sudden resignation as PQ leader following an unsatisfactory approval rating was largely attributed to the dissatisfaction of the “pur et dur” with his ambiguity on referendum timing. The PQ faction known as the pur et dur are English Canada’s boogeymen, militant separatists that advocate literal interpretations of Bill 101, and worry when immigrants take private English classes. Duceppe, on the other hand, isn’t forced to focus on prickly issues like language and ethnicity. His approval rating at the convention was a staggering 96.8 percent, significantly higher than any other federal leader. Duceppe isn’t shackled to a hard line that he must appease, and has taken advantage of that freedom to foster a more inclusive image of sovereignty.

So where do Parizeau’s claims about money and ethnicity leave somebody like Barbot? She admits that his statements “didn’t summarize the opinions of all sovereigntists,” and adds, “My place was there before he made those comments.” Still, some elements of Parizeau’s comments seem to have aged strangely well.

“There was something objective in those comments,” says Barbot. “It was not the right moment or the way to say it, but to a certain extent he was right.” The sponsorship scandal has helped Parizeau seem almost clairvoyant, if only in respect to the “money” half of his remark. The scandal has also become the lifeblood of the Bloc, a narrative that compliments the party’s refashioned image so seamlessly that Duceppe couldn’t have designed a more potent political club if he’d tried. The bottoming out of sovereignty support in the years following the referendum and—since the sponsorship inquiry began—the predictions that the Bloc could take as many as sixty seats in the next election just don’t make sense without AdScam ... and neither would the Bloc’s message.

The cronyism, the allegations of kickbacks and the rules flouted—it’s the evidence needed to prove Duceppe’s argument that the federal government is a negative force in the lives of all Quebecers. How important is the inquiry to the Bloc? The “Je me souviens” lines in Gilles Duceppe’s speech on Sunday weren’t referring to the hard-fought battle ten years earlier, but were a promise to remember Liberal misdeeds and empty promises. The revelations from the Gomery Inquiry and the impact of its report has not only allowed the Bloc Québecois to consolidate a support base that had threatened to erode following the 2000 election; it has also allowed the party to consolidate its identity and vision for Quebec. “What we propose is not a Quebec in Canada, but a Quebec in the world,” Duceppe told delegates to fevered applause.

That’s Duceppe’s sovereignty, soft and without specifics; more a new way to look at the province than a revolutionary break with the country. Following his speech, Duceppe gave a press conference in one of the arena’s dressing rooms. He answered questions with the ease of a salesman who knows his product well. “There is a big difference from the sentiment that existed in the 60s,” he says, referring to the anger of Quebecers towards federalism that ultimately gave birth to the Parti Québecois in 1968. And now? “Canadians want to build a country—the problem is that we don’t fit into that.”

Going into the next election, it would seem the Bloc has already won the numbers game, seat-wise. The party has claimed more seats in Quebec than any other party spanning the past four federal elections—meaning it’s time to move onto more symbolic victories. If the Bloc Quebecois can win in Papineau, if they can slay a prominent Quebec federalist like Pettigrew, the dictum that immigrants vote Liberal may be cast in doubt.

The campaign in Papineau will be federalism on trial, and a Barbot win will send the message that Ottawa has left Quebecers by the wayside. Not just any Quebecers, either—the new Quebecers that Liberal strategists had considered givens.

Jonathan Montpetit is a Montreal-based journalist. Although an Anglophone in Quebec, he is trying very hard to overcome the genetic impulse to vote Liberal.