Hegel famously observed that history always repeats itself, to which Karl Marx added, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
For the Bloc Québécois, 2011’s tragedy is quickly becoming 2015’s farce.
On Friday afternoon, the struggling political party released a new ad. The 20-second animated video starts by warning Quebecers that an NDP victory will mean the construction of a pipeline, whether Quebecers want it or not.
“The elections are coming,” a narrator says in French, “and if Thomas Mulcair is elected, a big pipeline is also coming, even if we don’t want it.”
This references debate over the Energy East pipeline, the largest pipeline project ever proposed in North America. The NDP’s position on the pipeline is that it cannot be approved under the current system of environmental review, which the party has criticized as lacking independence and credibility. However, Mulcair has also given interviews where he touts the new and improved environmental assessment his government would introduce as a way to win over the public to support construction of the pipeline.
The NDP’s position has remained deliberately ambiguous, and in a province where over two-thirds oppose the pipeline it’s one of the few issues on which the Bloc can differentiate themselves from the orange team. But the ad doesn’t stop there.
As the image on screen of a pipeline fades, a drop of oil falls and becomes a niqab, the full-face covering worn by a small minority of Muslim women.
“And even if you’re not in agreement with wearing the niqab to vote or be sworn in [as a citizen], Thomas Mulcair, he is!”
This references an ongoing debate over the limits of religious accommodation in Quebec society, one sparked by the Charter of Quebec Values, which was introduced, but not passed, by the previous Parti Québécois government. It would have barred public servants from wearing visible religious symbols, and prevented women wearing the niqab from accessing government services.
In 2011 the Conservative government barred women wearing the niqab from taking the oath of citizenship. A Federal Court judge ruled that this ban was unlawful, and this month the Federal Court of Appeal rejected a government challenge of that decision. Now the Conservatives have promised to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, and vowed to reintroduce legislation that would ban face coverings at citizenship ceremonies.
The Liberals and New Democrats both support the court ruling, and oppose forcing veiled women to remove their face covering to take the oath of citizenship. This has caused some friction within the NDP, and Quebec MP Alexandre Boulerice has said he is uncomfortable with the niqab, calling it a “symbol of oppression.”
The ad concludes with the words “It’s the last straw. I’m going back to the Bloc,” as the party logo flashes on screen.
The short video has been watched over 200,000 times between Facebook and YouTube, but a survey of the comments left on those platforms shows the response has been, at best, mixed.
On Saturday morning the YouTube page for the video featured a clear majority of negative comments. By afternoon all but six comments had been deleted. Four new ones appeared before the end of the day, three of which were negative.
On Twitter only three users had responded to the party account’s tweet of the video by Saturday afternoon. One called the argument simplistic while another wrote in French, “Agreed, let’s vote to make the Bloc disappear once and for all!”
On Facebook there were over 500 comments, with most of the top comments criticizing the video for being racist, demagogic and desperate. Many commenters, maybe even the majority overall, were supportive — but one would expect stronger support for a party’s post on its own page.
“You’re lucky you’re sovereigntist because if not you would lose me,” wrote one commenter in French. “The niqab doesn’t cause any problems.” “A misogynist and discriminatory party,” wrote another. “We have everything to lose with you! You have sunk even lower. You no longer represent the needs and desires of a majority of Quebecers. I’m moving overseas if you are elected.”
Many commenters also defended the video, denied it was racist and argued that immigrants to a secular province like Quebec have a responsibility to adapt to local customs.
But it’s a sign of the times for the Bloc that reaction to their video is so divided, even on their own social media channels.
According to poll aggregator Eric Grenier the party is averaging 12.2 per cent support in Quebec across all polls, and is projected to win zero seats.
In the Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie, which Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe is trying to win back from the NDP, a CROP poll commissioned by the New Democrats found he was trailing by almost 40 points. The sample was small at 377, and the poll was paid for by his political rivals, but no one is betting on Duceppe to retake the seat.
It’s the continuation of an existential crisis that began in 2008 when the breakdown of coalition negotiations made clear to Quebecers that the rest of the country was unwilling to accept a government that included the Bloc in any capacity. Before that many Quebecers voted Bloc in the hope they could participate in a coalition government with a party like the Liberals or New Democrats.
In 2011 Quebecers moved en masse from the 20-year-old protest party to the NDP, and so far show no signs of buyer's remorse. The increasingly strident and emotional appeals for sovereigntists to come home to the Bloc appear to be falling on deaf ears.
Perhaps the most telling criticisms of the video were not those accusing the Bloc of racism, after all the charter of values was popular and many Quebecers have reservations about religious accommodation, but those that questioned the rationale for the party’s continued existence.
“The Bloc is always in the opposition and will never make decisions," wrote one commenter on the Facebook post. “If you take the time to vote, do so for one of the parties which actually has a chance of representing your interests and values.”
As support plummets and pundits debate whether the Bloc will manage to win even a single seat, the question becomes whether the party will continue to exist past Oct. 19.
That’s an outcome that would have seemed impossible just five years ago, and it underlines the fundamental realignment of Quebec politics at the federal level which has taken place in the past half decade.