Justin Trudeau may have clung on by his fingernails in Canada’s election Monday, but his Liberal Party is now at the mercy of a bloc that advocates for the French-speaking province of Québec to separate from the rest of Canada.
Trudeau’s Liberals suffered serious losses in the country’s western plains and on the Atlantic coast, but they would likely have narrowly held on to their parliamentary majority were it not for the unexpected late rise of the Bloc Québécois in Québec.
The Bloc is now in a position to exact concessions from the government in exchange for the support of their MPs in key votes. And if Trudeau’s government crosses the party, they are now in a position to force a fresh election, potentially just months after Canadians last went to the polls.
The separatist party had long dominated federal politics in Québec in the 1990s and early 2000s, but as voters in the province started to lose their appetite for statehood, they stopped voting for the party that fought for it. After winning 49 of the province’s then-75 seats in 2008, the party crashed to just four in 2011, and 10 in 2015.
The general consensus, both within Québec and beyond, was that the Bloc was a spent force, advocating a cause viewed with a degree of ridicule by a younger generation of Québécois. The social-democratic values that the party espoused, it was believed, were better represented in the federalist, and pan-Canadian, New Democratic and Liberal parties. Quebecers elected 59 (out of 75) and 40 (out of 78) of those parties’ MPs in the 2011 and 2015 elections, respectively.
But with the rise of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a conservative-populist political party at the provincial level that took power in Québec City last year, the electoral calculus began to change for the Bloc.
Under Québec’s new CAQ Premier, François Legault, the province has begun to demand more autonomy — but, critically, not outright independence — from the rest of Canada. New provincial laws passed by the CAQ, such as Bill 21, which bars those who wear religious symbols from holding a broad range of public-sector jobs, horrified the province’s English-speaking minority and were dismissed by Canada’s other 9 provinces as both discriminatory and unconstitutional, but have proven popular with Québec French-speaking majority.
It was against this backdrop that the Bloc refashioned itself as vanguards of the province’s people and culture, rather than a vehicle to achieve statehood, under their charismatic new leader, Yves-François Blanchet. The Bloc’s campaign slogan, “le Québec, c’est nous” (Québec is ours), attracted controversy for its exclusionary tone, but it drove voters concerned with protecting the French language and “laïcité”, or secularism, back to the party.
The former television personality was the only one of Canada’s five major party leaders to defend Bill 21 during the federal election campaign, insisting that its popularity with Québec voters meant it should not be challenged by Ottawa in court. After Trudeau firmly left the door open to doing just that in a French-language television debate late in the campaign, his party began to hemorrhage votes to the Bloc in opinion polls.
This caused both Trudeau and Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer to put the Bloc in their crosshairs. In the final television debate of the campaign, both leaders spent a notable exchange claiming that a vote for the Bloc was actually a vote for the other leaders’ party.
This prompted a bemused response from Blanchet when he spoke to reporters after the debate, saying only, “a vote for the Bloc is a vote for the Bloc.”
The two major party leaders also warned voters that a vote for the Bloc could be a vote for another referendum on Québec independence, something polls have shown there is little appetite for anymore in the province.
“[Another referendum] is not what want Quebecers want…while other people are trying to divide us, we're going to stay focused on moving forward all together," Trudeau said on his final campaign stop of the campaign in Vancouver.
But this tactic failed to stop the Bloc’s return to relevancy in Canadian politics, and the party will now hold the balance of power in a closely-divided Parliament.
As results rolled in on Monday night, showing Trudeau’s Liberals had lost their majority, Liberal strategists conceded that the party would likely have won a clearer victory were it not for the surge of the Bloc in Québec. The party won 32 of Québec’s 78 seats in the Canadian Parliament, just behind the Liberals’ 35 seat-total in the province. The party also won the French-speaking vote in Québec for the first time since 2008, a major symbolic victory.
The diminished Trudeau government will now need the votes of either Bloc MPs or some other opposition party to pass any legislation through the House of Commons.
In the successive minority governments that ran Canada from 2004 to 2011, the Bloc frequently demanded federal cash for boutique projects in the province, such as Québec City’s vast (and disused) multi-million-dollar hockey arena, in exchange for their help passing budgets and other laws. The former Conservative government of Stephen Harper’s refusal to fund that Québec City arena in 2011 was what caused Bloc MPs to force a fresh election that year.
In a fiery victory speech delivered entirely in French, Blanchet thanked the party’s young supporters for “waiting eight years” to see the party rise from the ashes to its former place in politics.
And in a clear warning shot to Trudeau’s Liberals, the former television personality reiterated that his party will not “work with any government”, but would rather “collaborate” on individual pieces of legislation, so long as “gains could be made” for his province.