Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, a 'foreigner' in Ottawa

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OTTAWA — One day in April 2020, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet felt he'd had it with the games surrounding politics. At the time, the COVID-19 pandemic had forced his party and the New Democrats to support a Liberal proposal to sit only once a week.

"The (political games) of parliamentarians who talk parliamentarian to parliamentarian about their little parliamentarian things, I don't think that interests the proverbial real world much," he said.

But it was the word Blanchet used in French, "tataouinage," that made the English-speaking journalists smile.

"You talked about tataouinage, so can you explain that?” asked Julie Van Dusen, then a reporter with the CBC.

"Translating the word tataouinage might prove quite a challenge," Blanchet replied.

"Let's say it is a bunch of things which might have been done in a shorter and more comprehensive way … political games. Partisan games are quite often tataouinage."

During his first mandate in the House of Commons, Blanchet was seen as little more than a curiosity in the eyes of most Canadians outside Quebec, where he had been a provincial cabinet minister. During a recent interview in French, he admitted feeling like a foreigner in this universe where he doesn't belong.

"It's another world," he said. "In Ottawa, without exaggerating and without being partisan, we are no longer at home. It's a Parliament that is very British, very English … we're in a foreign Parliament," he said, adding that the staff at the House of Commons are very courteous.

The federal MPs, far more numerous than Quebec legislature members, have also remained strangers to him.

"It's certain that the pandemic hasn't helped," he said. "But frankly, there are half the members of the federal Parliament, I could cross them in the street and I wouldn't recognize them.

"We don't know each other well and the tensions between political parties in Ottawa are very marked."

Blanchet was an active player in some of those tensions during his last term in Ottawa.

Last year, he blasted NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh for calling Bloc MP Alain Therrien a "racist." Singh was removed from the House of Commons for the remark, which came after Therrien blocked a New Democrat motion to recognize systemic racism in the RCMP.

The Bloc has said it was already supporting a study of systemic racism in police forces, including the RCMP, at the Commons public safety committee and did not want to draw conclusions before the work had even begun.

Singh has refused to apologize, and the two parties haven't spoken since.

Blanchet, for his part, has refused to apologize for what he described as raising questions, while refusing to be specific, about ties between federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and "the political Islamic movement." His comments had no basis and Alghabra called the insinuations a "dangerous game."

"We've seen that from the NDP, we've seen that from the Liberals, to turn whatever you say or whatever question you ask into a demonstration that you're racist," Blanchet said. "I think they'll be smart enough not to start that again."

Blanchet also had a warning for both parties: "Quebecers are fed up with being called racists … If the Liberals continue to play at that, if the NDP continue to play at that, I'm convinced they'll pay the price," he said.

He had the same reproach for English-speaking journalists who, in addition to asking him about Quebec expressions, have also pushed him on questions of identity.

As recently as June, Blanchet was losing patience with those who made a connection between Quebec's secularism law, which bans some public servants from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, and an attack that killed four Muslims in London, Ont.

"I'll say it again: Quebecers are fed up with being called racists!" he said.

The Bloc leader admits that sometimes his words go too far and it gets him in trouble, but he has no intention of changing.

"It's well known that I don't prepare speeches in the sense of writing them down, learning them by heart," he said. "My personal doctrine is: What is the question? What is the truth? The truth goes with the answer.

"It means that … in a debate or press conference, it comes out as it comes. Without self-censorship."

The Bloc leader said he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I prefer to take the risk of spontaneity than to format myself and no longer have a political personality," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug 30, 2021.

Catherine Lévesque, The Canadian Press

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