New leader Blanchet steering Bloc back to relevance in Quebec

The bus carrying Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet powers its way over the curb outside a seniors residence in Sainte-Julie, Que., as the driver steers towards the small crowd waiting for him.

The village is in Montarville, a riding won four years ago by the Liberals. And it’s one of the many ridings around Montreal where the Bloc is suddenly back in the game.

If Blanchet gets his way, his party will have rolled over political opponents of all stripes when the results are in a week from Monday, marking the resurrection of a party dismissed as dead eight years ago, its cause of an independent Quebec relegated to the history books after a similarly disappointing result in 2015.

Polls now suggest the Bloc is poised to make significant gains. And much of the credit if that happens will go to Blanchet, who only took over the party’s leadership this year and whose face is now plastered on the posters of every Bloc candidate.

“On veux le chef,” one woman calls as the door to the bus opens. She gets her wish a few moments later when Blanchet bounds down the step, all smiles and bonhomie, handshakes and hugs for the Bloc supporters waiting to meet him inside Les Residence Soleil Manoir, with its 500 units and so many potential Bloc voters.

Stéphane Bergeron is the candidate here in Montarville. He’s trying to win back a seat he held for the Bloc from 1993 to 2005 before leaving for provincial politics.

Bergeron tells CBC Radio’s The House that Blanchet is the main reason he’s running again. But the other is that he remains a sovereigntist even if it’s no longer the driving force it used to be.

“For sure sovereignty is not the first priority right now on the list for Quebecers. But it might be again and, in the meantime, we have to be there in the House of Commons to promote and defend the interests of Quebec.”

The Bloc resurgent

There are any number of reasons to explain the Bloc’s return to relevance. 

Blanchet has hitched his wagon to the popular provincial government of François Legault. He parrots the premier’s strong nationalist bent, in particular the demand that Ottawa not challenge Bill 21, the law requiring Quebec public servants remove symbols of their religion at work, and agree to extend the province’s French-language charter to federal agencies in the province.

Both have gone over well with voters, says Bergeron.

Former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe sees another reason behind the Bloc’s steady climb in the polls. He says voters who were leaning to the Conservatives this time now believe Andrew Scheer is out of step with them on too many issues.

“They realize Scheer, on abortion, same-sex marriage and the pipelines and the problems he had expressing himself clearly in French, so they move to the Bloc.”

Duceppe says it’s the reverse of the experience he went through in 2011, when the NDP began to steadily strip away support from his party late in the campaign. That kind of momentum swing, he says, is hard to pinpoint, and even harder to stop. 

The bigger challenge is understanding whether Bloc support in this election is a one-time thing, a protest vote for Quebecers who don’t like Scheer or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

“People recognize themselves (in) what Blanchet is saying. They don’t recognize themselves with Trudeau fighting against Legault,” Duceppe says. “That doesn’t mean Trudeau will lose everything in Quebec, not at all. He performed well last time and it’s not over yet.”

Uphill battle for NDP

The NDP’s prospects appear less certain. The same polls that are reflecting a rise in Bloc support suggest there’s no safe seat in the province for New Democrats.

Matthew Dube is running for re-election in Beloeil-Chambly, an hour or so outside Montreal. He won four years ago in a tight, three-way race with the Liberals and the Bloc. This time around, his opponent is Blanchet, who chose to run here rather than his home riding of Drummond.

Matthew Dube is seeking a third term as MP for Beloeil-Chambly, an hour or so outside Montreal. He won four years ago in a tight, three-way race – but now is up against the leader of the Bloc, Yves-Francois Blanchet. (CBC)

Dube sits on a bench along the Richelieu River, not far from the old village of Beloeil, a stretch of narrow streets lined with restaurants and shops, just behind the old stone mill along the water that’s been converted into a brew pub. 

He’s counting on his record as a two-term MP and a better-than-expected  performance by party leader Jagmeet Singh in the three debates.

“What we say in French, un gagné d’etre connu, you win by being known — that’s a very rough translation, but that’s what people are really saying to us after the different debates,” he says.

“There’s no doubt the Bloc plays on the failures of Justin Trudeau to capture that progressive voice Quebecers want to have in Ottawa. We’re certainly considering ourselves a viable alternative to that.”

With that, Dube heads off to another campaign event, walking up the slight incline away from the river’s edge, another uphill climb for a candidate trying to stay ahead of a Bloc Quebecois rival.