The Separatist Curve Ball

How the Bloc Québécois cornered federalism

Marco Cibola1

As political prognosticators consult the tea leaves in this winter of Canadian electoral discontent, it’s tempting to apply the venerable Red Rose slogan to the 2006 general election: Only in Canada. Pity.

Except that in this instance, the distinction isn’t an enviable one. Where else, after all, are citizens compelled to slog through slush and snow to participate in an exercise of near-certain futility that’s likely to replace one dysfunctional minority government with another? Where else is the prospect of perpetual paralysis virtually predetermined by a taxpayer-subsidized separatist party that isn’t even on the ballot in most parts of the country it wants to dismember? And where else does the spoiler stand to proclaim that the instability it instigated is proof the country no longer works?

Of course, the tea leaves could be wrong. But while polling numbers for the three federalist parties have fluctuated, they’ve been remarkably consistent for the Bloc Québécois. Indeed, the Bloc’s stranglehold on has been unassailable for the past two years, ever since Auditor General Sheila Fraser exposed the rot at the heart of the sponsorship program, an initiative meant to boost the federal profile in Quebec gone horribly awry.

Fraser’s explosive report breathed new life into the Bloc, which had been teetering on the brink of oblivion. Under the seasoned leadership of Gilles Duceppe, the party snagged fifty-four of Quebec’s seventy-five seats in the 2004 election, matching the high attained by separatist icon and party founder Lucien Bouchard in 1993 and denying novice Prime Minister Paul Martin a majority. Thanks to the fabled Gomery inquiry — naively created by Martin in the hope that exposing sleazy sponsorship machinations in excruciating detail would immunize his “new” Liberal regime while tarnishing that of his archrival and predecessor, Jean Chrétien — the Bloc has ridden the wave of Quebecers’ disgust with all things Liberal ever since. It’s poised to pick up five to ten more seats, making it extraordinarily difficult for anyone else to win a majority.

“Unless somebody sweeps Ontario and cleans up everywhere else, it’s almost impossible,” says Ipsos-Reid pollster Darrell Bricker. Many Quebecers believe voting for the Bloc is a riskfree way to protest Liberal perfidy. In fact, laments former Liberal minister Martin Cauchon, it’s “pretty bad for Canadian democracy because as long as you’re going to have the Bloc Québécois in the province of Quebec, it’s going to be very tough for Canada to renew its government, to change the government, or even have a majority government.” Long-time Chrétien adviser Eddie Goldenberg concurs, calling Martin’s handling of the scandal “a colossal political blunder . . . with really serious consequences for the unity of the country.” Martin loyalists, naturally, blame the Chrétien crowd, under whose watch the scandal was allowed to fester, for blasting their hopes of a majority. Either way, the ongoing civil war between the two camps is music to Bloquiste ears.

But if Liberal prospects are grim, they’re even worse for the Conservatives. The Bloc’s formidable presence has polarized politics in Quebec, with hardcore federalists rallying to the Grits. Squeezed out in Quebec, the Conservatives struggle for traction in Ontario, where national unity concerns resonate strongly with voters. “It’s sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” concedes Lawrence Cannon, Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s Quebec lieutenant. Indeed, any Conservative support for the Bloc — even on the natural issues of devolving more powers to inevitably hurts them in Ontario.

But the election is just the start of the nightmare scenario for federalists who fear that Liberal Premier Jean Charest’s unpopular provincial government will shortly be turfed by a resurgent Parti Québécois with the newly minted, hip youngster André Boisclair at the helm. The last thing they need is sixty Bloc MPs monopolizing local media and community events in their ridings and unleashing their campaign machines to help elect their PQ cousins.

Should the PQ win, the last thing the country needs is a feeble minority government in Ottawa facing a third, potentially fatal, referendum on Quebec independence. “I think it does help the separatist cause to say the country’s not manageable,” says Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies in Montreal. “It’s a vicious circle in a way.” Worse, Canadian taxpayers are underwriting the Bloc’s success — all because of the sponsorship scandal, the gift that keeps on giving to the Bloc.

Pummelled during his final months in office by revelations that ad agencies had kicked back hefty donations to the Liberals in return for lucrative government sponsorship contracts, Chrétien overhauled political financing laws in a bid to eradicate the influence of big money on the system. He outlawed most corporate donations and imposed strict limits on personal donations, compensating parties with a public subsidy of $1.75 per vote obtained in the last election. This subsidy has been a windfall for the Quebec-only Bloc, which incurs far fewer expenses than the nationwide parties. It raked in $2.7 million from the public purse in 2004 and more than $3 million last year. “Personally, I think it’s kind of ridiculous to have the rest of the country subsidizing a separatist party,” says the Tories’ Cannon.

Some senior Liberals agree, suggesting the Bloc should be limited to 24 percent of the subsidy (42 cents per vote) since it competes in only 24 percent of Canada’s 308 ridings. Young Liberals in the party’s Quebec wing passed a resolution to that effect, which Martin’s Quebec lieutenant, erstwhile Bloc co-founder Jean Lapierre, has agreed is worth debating. Chrétien insiders say such options were analyzed but were dismissed because they violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Patrick Monahan, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, notes the courts have struck down other electoral laws that treated so-called fringe parties as less than equal and predicts any attempt to reduce the Bloc’s subsidy would meet the same fate. “Why should one vote be worth less than another?” Monahan asks. Besides, he adds, the Bloc isn’t advocating anything illegal and should, therefore, be entitled to all the benefits due any political party.

Therein lies the rub for hardline federalists, who contend secession should be illegal in Canada, as it is in most other countries around the globe. Alas, it’s “definitely too late” for that, says Stéphane Dion, who, as Chrétien’s unity minister, spearheaded the federal response to the country’s near-death experience in the 1995 referendum. Indeed, when the Chrétien government sought advice from the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997 on the requisite legal process for secession, it didn’t bother asking if it would be constitutional to simply declare the country indivisible. Dion says it would be impossible for the federal government, having twice campaigned in sovereignty referendums, to try to turn back the clock. “Because so many politicians had agreed that Canada was divisible, to come by surprise and to say the contrary . . . it would have been too late.”

If anyone could have advanced that option, Dion says it was prime ministers such as Lester Pearson, during the separatist movement’s infancy in the 1960s, or Pierre Trudeau, during the first referendum in 1980. Marc Lalonde, one of Pierre Trudeau’s key Quebec ministers and now Martin’s campaign co-chair in the province, says Trudeau did consider declaring Canada indivisible but decided the option was moot if he wasn’t prepared to back it up with force. Mr. Trudeau, says Lalonde, “was not one to entertain the concept that, if people really wanted to separate and they had voted for it democratically, that we would send in the army and keep people against their will.” Trudeau believed “Canada was not the kind of country which would keep people by force” and that saying so up front would ultimately make “a stronger case” for staying together.

In any event, the Supreme Court that the federal government would be obliged to negotiate separation should a clear majority of Quebecers express their will to secede. That judgment became the foundation for Chrétien’s daring Clarity Act. Initially opposed by many Quebec federalists, including Martin, it has since become a source of solace as they ponder the spectre of a weak minority government facing a resurgent separatist movement in a third referendum. Aimed at exploding separatist dogma that independence can be achieved painlessly on Quebec’s terms with a simple majority Yes vote on an ambiguous question, the act specifies that the federal government would negotiate secession only if a clear majority of Quebecers votes Yes on a clear referendum question to separate. Moreover, it spells out that secession would require a constitutional amendment negotiated with the other provinces and that everything, including Quebec’s borders, would be on the table.

Still, those rules are only as good as the will of the prime minister of the day to enforce them, and for the embittered Chrétien faction of the Liberal party that’s cold comfort. Notwithstanding Martin’s late embrace of the Clarity Act, Eddie Goldenberg scoffs: “If Martin is around, he may decide a [referendum] question ‘Do you like hot dogs? ’ is good enough to break up the country.” Political sniping aside, no prime minister leading a minority government would be well positioned to hang tough in the face of Boisclair’s declaration that he’d simply ignore the Clarity Act.

It’s worth noting that it is possible to win majority governments even with Bloc dominance in Quebec. Chrétien, taking advantage of a divided conservative movement, managed it three times by sweeping Ontario. Should winning a landslide Ontario vote prove impossible for Martin or Harper, it’s premature to assume no one else could in the future. The sponsorship scandal will eventually fade, and the Bloc’s fortunes could sink again. Another referendum is not a certainty. And the notoriously thinskinned Boisclair could yet turn out to be federalism’s salvation.

Still, if another sclerotic minority emerges courtesy of the Bloc, Monahan predicts frustrated Canadians will lose patience and demand the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system be replaced by some form of proportional representation (PR). The current system, long maligned for distorting the level of support for parties, has seen the Liberals capture more than 50 percent of the seats in Parliament with as little as 37 percent of the popular vote. It also favours parties whose support is regionally concentrated. Hence, the Bloc can win fifty seats with only 13 percent of the nationwide vote, while the Green Party, with around 4-percent support sprinkled around the country, winds up with none.

Some provincial governments are flirting with PR but the option has never gained much momentum at the federal level, largely because the one saving grace of the first-past-the-post system was deemed to be its ability to produce stable majority governments. A second consecutive minority election could change all that, says Monahan. “I’ve heard the argument made recently that we’re no longer getting the benefits. In fact, the first-past-the-post system is benefiting the Bloc so why should we maintain that system when it’s not now delivering us what we had always thought to be its prime feature, namely, a majority national government? I think it’s certainly something worth thinking about.” Under PR, seat counts would more fairly reflect each party’s share of the national popular vote, enabling small parties such as the Greens to gain a foothold in Parliament and diluting the Bloc’s influence. But if stability is the objective, PR, with its propensity to produce minority governments in perpetuity, may well be a case of the cure turning out to be worse than the disease.

Joan Bryden