The 2004 Election & the Left: Some Lessons from Quebec

Article excerpt

A few thoughts on the June 28 federal election, focused on the Quebec results and their implications for the Left in the Rest of Canada.





This was the fourth consecutive federal election in which the Bloc Quebecois has emerged as the dominant party in francophone Quebec. And the sixth consecutive election in which the federal Liberals, Canada's "natural governing party," failed to win a plurality--let alone a majority--among Quebec's francophone voters. The Bloc received 300,000 more votes than it got in 2000; rumours of its imminent demise proved greatly exaggerated.

Quebec has produced nationalist splinter parties in the past: Henri Bourassa's Parti Nationaliste, the anti-conscription Bloc Populaire in the 1940s and Real Caouette's rural Creditistes. But none had the longevity and popular support of the Bloc Quebecois, not to mention the Parti Quebecois. Throughout most of the twentieth century, until the 1980s, Quebecers, as a minority people within Canada, tended to vote overwhelmingly with the party in power in Ottawa. That, the reasoning went, was how they could exert maximum influence within the federal system of government. Now, however, the myth of "French power" within the federal government has been largely abandoned.

One obvious explanation for this change in traditional voting patterns lies, of course, in the fallout from the unilateral patriation of the Constitution in 1982 and the failure to repair that error (Meech Lake, Charlottetown). The roots go much deeper, however. During the Trudeau years, many francophone Quebecers were able to overlook his visceral hatred of Quebec nationalism because his governments, initially at least, offered some real hope of improvement in their status within Canada through such things as the official languages policy and repeated (albeit unsuccessful) attempts to develop a made-in-Canada constitution that would be acceptable to Quebec. But since the early eighties, federalism--now meaning the constitutional status quo--has been on the defensive in Quebec. Federal politics in Quebec now more closely resemble the alignments that have developed on the provincial level since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the PQ and now the BQ building on the ongoing strength of the pro-sovereignty sentiment.

Quebec's alienation from the federal regime in the wake of the Meech debacle triggered the collapse of the Tories, and has now, following the disclosures over the "sponsorship" campaign--with its contemptuous approach to Quebec referendum laws and Quebecois political allegiances--reduced the Liberals to minority government status.


The NDP's vote in Quebec, while increasing by 95,000, remained well below 10 per cent of the total. And some of its best scores were for candidates known for their pro-sovereignty views, like Omar Aktouf, a leader of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP). Until recently, Jack Layton and his Quebec adjutant Pierre Ducasse had banked their hopes for big NDP gains on what they perceived as waning support for sovereignty and, with it, a decline and eventual disappearance of the Bloc--just as the PQ's decline in the mid-eighties, when it dropped the sovereignty goal and embraced the "beau risque" strategy with the federal Tories, resulted in a brief surge in the provincial NDP's Quebec support. But when the PQ reoriented toward sovereignty under Jacques Parizeau, the Quebec NDP collapsed; its remnants are now in the sovereigntist UFP.

The Quebec national question has plagued the NDP from its inception. At its 1961 founding convention, attended by some 300 delegates from Quebec, the new party adopted a position that recognized Quebec as a distinct "nation." Even then this was controversial; Eugene Forsey, then the research director for the Canadian Labour Congress, quit the party on the floor of the convention over that nod to reality. …