The Bloc at 20

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When Jean Chrétien won his first of three majority governments, in 1993, he had little time to enjoy a "honeymoon effect." Seated across the aisle as Leader of the Opposition was Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Québécois. In its first election the Bloc had won 54 seats calling for the sovereignty of Chrétien's home province.

The Bloc was created at the suggestion of Robert Bourrassa, who as premier of Quebec had to deal with the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990. Bouchard had left the Conservative cabinet of Brian Mulroney over differences with his cabinet colleague (and current Quebec premier) Jean Charest; Bouchard thought Charest was going behind his back to weaken the distinct society provisions of the Meech Lake Accord. Bourrassa saw a role for an alliance of Quebec MPs forming in the House of Commons to demonstrate the unity of Quebec around the need for either recognition of Quebec as a nation enjoying autonomy within Canada, or a referendum to negotiate sovereignty. Two Liberals joined Bouchard and six Conservatives in a small parliamentary rump. Current leader Gilles Duceppe was the first Bloc MP to be elected. He won a by-election in August 1990 (running as an independent since the Bloc was not yet a registered party) following the death of the popular Liberal MP from East Montreal Jean-Claude Malépart.

Bourrassa's view proved prescient. What Bouchard called the "doomed party," (doomed to disappear after sovereignty was achieved) is celebrating 20 years of parliamentary presence this year, reminding Canada that Quebec has its own national identity.

Leader Gilles Duceppe will be touring Canada in April, and Europe in October. The General Council of the Party met in Quebec City March 10 and adopted an action plan, which includes reaching out to women voters, and youth, a summer institute, and constant campaigning in favour of the sovereignty option. While many in Quebec remain sovereignists, or are sympathetic to the option, lots of Quebecers have moved on to other things, and the Bloc works hard to counter indifference.

Duceppe would not like to hear it said, but the main contribution of the Bloc has to make Parliament look more like Canada. The Bloc only speaks French in Parliament, reflecting the reality of about five million Canadians who are unilingual French.

When Duceppe does his round of visits in Canada outside Quebec, he will be following in the footsteps of René Lévesque who regularly explained (in fluent English) why he wanted to see Quebec become a sovereign state (in association with Canada). Lévesque was always careful to outline his respect for English Canada (as he called it) and won many admirers for his eloquent vision of more harmonious relations between the "two nations" as a result of sovereignty-association.

Duceppe is unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing in his Canadian travels. The sovereignty of Quebec is no longer a new idea.

To his friends on the left Duceppe will have to explain why he thinks Canada should adopt the American dollar as its currency, let alone why it would be worthwhile for a sovereign Quebec to become "dollarized." Without a national currency, the role of the central bank as a lender of last resort is comprised. In a crisis, the Bank of Canada (or of Quebec) would have to borrow U.S. dollars to lend to a failing financial institution. Instead of creating the money, as the Bank of Canada creates the Canadian monetary base, the "sovereign" state would borrow it in the market, and repay with interest. Why would Canadians or Quebecers want to be part of a dependent territory, which is what a country that uses another nations currency becomes? It is hard not to conclude that the Bloc, after 20 years seems of pitched political battle is willing to see Canada weakened, so long as it advances the sovereignty option.

Those outside Quebec sympathetic to the Blocs role in defending unemployment insurance, and fighting inequalities, are puzzled by its unwillingness to stage all out opposition to the Afghan war.

People Duceppe meets in Europe will know the Bloc option has been rejected in two referendums by the people of Quebec.

In his memoirs Jean Chrétien said of the Bloc that at least it divided the anti-Liberal vote. One is left wondering if as much thinking went into defeating the Bloc as is to using its presence to build up the former Liberal leader outside Quebec.

Duncan Cameron writes from Vancouver.

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