Today Martine Ouellet is officially no longer leader of the Bloc Québécois. In the wake of last week’s crushing confidence vote, she had to step down, the culmination of several fraught months with the embattled party. Somewhat paradoxically, in the same vote, 65 per cent of Bloc Québécois members said they were in favour of the party’s central mandate to support and promote Quebec independence at all costs — the same policy that prompted the resignation of seven of 10 Bloc MPs in February, crippling the party and bolstering Ouellet’s unpopularity.
The future of the party is unclear in the run-up to next year’s federal elections. The next party leader will have the difficult task of restoring party unity, all the while advancing a renewed commitment to doggedly pursuing independence.
“In order to bring all the troops back together and make sure everyone is more cohesive, the Bloc now needs someone who is going to be very exceptional. And I’m not sure if that person exists right now,” said Daniel Salée, a political science professor at Concordia University.
Decline of the sovereignty movement
Policies espoused by Quebec’s other federal and provincial sovereigntist parties suggest that a militant zeroing in on independence is an increasingly tough sell to the Quebec electorate.
Even the Parti Québécois has opted for a softer approach, saying that if it carries the provincial election later this year, it will not push for another independence referendum until a second mandate. Québec Debout, a federal party set up this March by the seven departed Bloc MPs, has been clear that it will focus on representing Quebec’s best interests in Ottawa, instead of focusing on the single goal of independence at all costs. (Two of the seven are now re-joining the Bloc given Ouellet’s departure. The other five will remain in Québec Debout.)
In a tearful exit speech on June 4, Ouellet blamed the vote result on a “sick” movement bogged down by in-fighting, party president Mario Beaulieu, former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, and sexism. Many commentators saw her vitriolic and bitter speech as yet more proof of the brash and undiplomatic leadership qualities that made her so unpopular in the first place.
But, according to Salée, Ouellet’s poor leadership is only the iceberg of the Bloc’s woes. “What is happening undoubtedly has to do with Ms. Ouellet’s abrasive style of leadership, but that is only part — and not necessarily the most important one — of the story. A more significant explanatory factor is the decline of sovereignty as a viable and attractive political project.”
He said the Bloc will struggle to attract someone willing to “sacrifice their reputation, their good name and job to a party that is condemned already.”
Down but not out
Others take a less pessimistic view of the Bloc’s future.
In an analysis for Radio-Canada, Michel Augur said that a lot rests on the performance of the PQ in the provincial elections in October. If the PQ struggles to amass votes, he said, the Bloc will suffer.
In that case, "the sovereignist movement could well decide that, for its own survival, it would be preferable to rebuild itself in Quebec, where independence could be achieved, rather than in Ottawa, which will always be a second front." But if the PQ is successful, he believes the Bloc could capitalize on that momentum, alongside the all-time low support for Trudeau’s Liberals in the province.
But, he added, in order to do this the Bloc needs to present a broader suite of priorities, more than a hellbent pursuit of independence — which is exactly what the party just voted in.
In the Toronto Star, Chantal Hébert said all is not lost for the party. “Provided it restores the unity of its caucus, the party still has a few cards to play,” she wrote. This includes the potential to drum up secessionist sentiment and outrage about the federal Conservative party’s desire to resuscitate discarded plans for an Energy East project for a pipeline from the oilfields to the Atlantic.
“If Scheer is determined to go into next year’s campaign with a platform that promises to double down on pipeline politics,” she wrote, “he will be offering a grateful BQ the breath of life.”
According to Salée, a sharp sense of outrage is exactly what the Quebec sovereigntist movement is lacking. “In order for a nationalist movement to lead to sovereignty and then independence, there needs to be an immense, deep-seated outrage from within that you are being screwed over by an external force,” he said. “We don’t have that here, not among Quebecers who aren’t French Canadians, or even among French Canadians themselves.”
As for Ouellet’s future? In her resignation speech, she intimated that her political career is not over. But after such a vitriolic resignation speech, Salée doubts she will be warmly invited back into the sovereigntist fold. “That was rather inelegant. She showed that she was really resentful. If she wants to stay in politics, that was not good.”