Road Bloc or Building Bloc?

Social Democratic Futures in Québec

The Bloc Québécois is on a roll. For the last year, polling has predicted a major setback for the BQ in the coming elections owing to Paul Martin’s popularity and the Parti Québécois’ defeat in the April, 2003 provincial election. Yet, the sponsorship scandals have given the BQ a bounce by adding the injury of self-serving corruption to the insult of the sponsorship program, which believed national grievances could be overcome by papering Québec with the Canada logo. While it is too soon to predict the election outcome, the Bloc should more or less match its 2000 electoral results. It certainly will run its biggest and most expensive campaign yet, as the new electoral-financing legislation provides a public subsidy dwarfing the small union and corporate donations it used to collect.

Despite the rise from the ashes in public opinion, however, it has not set hearts racing. This is true both in the sovereignist movement, which is more concerned with renewing the PQ, and on the Left, where energies are engaged in taking on the Charest government. While the BQ finally gave Québec’s social democrats representation in Ottawa, these representatives have not established their relevance to any of the transformative projects being promoted by progressive actors in the women’s and community movements.

The Bloc is not fully to blame for this state of events: Québec progressives have long lacked a coherent federal electoral strategy, focusing their demands on the Québec state, even if important economic and social levers (Employment Insurance, old-age security, macroeconomic policy) fall under federal jurisdiction. Yet, it is worth underlining that what excitement there is on the federal scene centres around attempts to revive the NDP. For instance, a number of riding associations of the Union des forces progressistes have backed local NDP candidates, and André Frappier, CUPW regional director for Metro-Montreal, is running for the party in Papineau. That these energies are invested in what are likely to be losing efforts, rather than in remaking the Bloc, is indicative of the latter’s irrelevance as a vehicle for advancing social-democratic politics.

Stumbling Blocs

The lack of enthusiasm for the Bloc thus goes deeper than a lack of interest in federal politics. The media often blames the leadership, noting Gilles Duceppe’s lack of charisma, and the tight control that his close advisors hold over the parliamentary caucus. Pierrette Venne was expelled from caucus for criticizing the leader, not, it is worth noting, for her opposition to same-sex marriage. Duceppe’s organizers likewise ensured that Jocelyne Girard-Bujold, who supported Venne, failed to win her renomination.

This points to a second reason for progressive disengagement: that beneath a largely social-democratic veneer, the party remains an ideological grab-bag with a significant conservative wing. The party did purge Ghislain Lebel for arguing that the PQ’s agreements with First Nations would leave the non-Aboriginal people with a postage-stamp-sized territory. Its conservative leanings nevertheless showed in the support several MPs gave to the Alliance’s motion on the definition of marriage, and in a lack of attention to the place of women in the party, including the decision to oust veteran MP Madeleine Dalphond-Guiral in favour of former PQ cabinet minister Serge Ménard.

More fundamentally for the Left, the Bloc has not been able to elaborate a coherent policy with regard to the United States. The sovereignist movement has used the success of the anti-war demonstrations in early 2003 to show that Québec has a different outlook from the Rest of Canada. In their view, it follows that protecting that difference requires sovereignty, so Québecers can set their own foreign policy.

This sovereignty claim sits uncomfortably next to an embrace of existing forms of economic and military integration, and calls for yet deeper relations through the adoption of a common currency, a free-trade agreement of the Americas and a continental security perimeter. The Bloc’s acceptance of trade and security integration is conditional upon countervailing measures (respect for the international conventions on refugees and protection of public goods from NAFTA’s Chapter 11 investment provisions taking culture and public services off the trade table), but these measures are a progressive gloss on the long-held sovereignist strategy of inserting Québec directly into the American space, thereby reducing dependence on the rest of Canada. Québecers may want a voice on the international stage, but not if it comes at the cost of having to parrot the American line, which is a likely result of the Bloc’s sovereignist project.

Post-Election Possibilities

The mainstream press has recently floated the idea of a Conservative government relying on Bloc support to keep it in office. One of Duceppe’s closest advisors, François Leblanc, favours such a scenario. This would please the segments of the capitalist class that favour closer and deeper relations with the United States, or who worry about the venality of a Liberal government lacking viable challengers. Gilles Duceppe has been cautious on this front, stressing his willingness to cooperate on specific files, suggesting they can “come to common goals” provided this is “in Québec’s best interests.”

There are a number of Conservative policies that fit with “Québec’s best interests” as defined by the Bloc. These include deep integration with the United States (common currency, the FTAA). The BQ might also agree to support a number of Conservative policies if they came with the quid pro quo of increased policy autonomy for Quebec. Provided the Conservatives buried their social-conservative policies and otherwise governed from about the same right-wing position as the Liberals, such an alliance is not unthinkable. Even Duceppe has said cooperation between the Bloc and the Conservatives is possible because “we have the same enemy.” For Bloc MPs, the shared goal of destroying the Liberal Party may be paramount, even if it comes at the cost of forsaking a progressive policy agenda.

This strategy, however, could jeopardize the Bloc’s survival. Progressive Quebecers might turn the popular “we didn’t vote for this” message being used against the Charest government into a slogan for attacking Bloc MPs who prop up a Conservative government. The idea may not even get past the discussion stage, as many of the Conservatives’ policies remain anathema to the left-liberal/social-democratic outlook shared by the majority of the BQ caucus and party members. But the notable absence of any public outcry by this wing of the party in the face Duceppe’s speculation is a disquieting sign of the decline of progressive influence in the Bloc.

The mainstream press has not speculated about a possible working relationship between the NDP and the Bloc. The Bloc’s ability to elect known social democrats has raised the possibility of developing productive relationships between the electoral Left in Québec and the rest of Canada, over and above national differences. Political cooperation could help forge shared perspectives and projects and thus give some depth to otherwise empty slogans like multinational federalism. Such creative cooperation is unfortunately unlikely, however, since both parties are fighting for the votes of left-wing Quebecers. The joining of social democrats in Québec with those in the rest of Canada might only come about if Bloc cooperation with the Conservatives shook loose some progressive Bloc MPs, or if the Bloc suffers an electoral setback that puts its survival into question.

Looking Forward

With the return of the Québec NDP to a position of quasi-respectability (though not of electability), the Québec Left is called to make choices. On the one hand is the Bloc, which, while dull, provides a largely social-democratic voice on the federal scene. Its relationship to the United States nevertheless remains problematic, and its program is more reactive than proactive. On the other hand is the NDP, a federalist party that threatens to weaken the Bloc, but that provides a few more spaces for questioning the American empire and that might one day have a shot at governing. The Québec Left is thus stuck between a project of national affirmation severely limited by concessions to the United States, and a slightly more progressive pan-Canadian project limited by its inability to deal substantively with the Québec national question. While both projects are scarcely earth-shattering, the worst (yet most likely) result is to choose neither, which will soon lead to the old-line parties once again monopolizing federal politics in Québec.

Peter Graefe teaches political science at McMaster University. Sara Mayo is a sustainable-transportation activist and is the past president of the Quebec NDP.

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