Why the Bloc Québécois came back from the dead to haunt the Liberals

Throughout the campaign, as the Bloc Québécois rose steadily in the polls, the other leaders would accuse the sovereigntist party of trying to revive vieilles chicanes, old arguments.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer used the line in the TVA debate. The NDP's Jagmeet Singh used a slight variation. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been using the line at least since 2013.

But whatever effect the claim once had, it's since worn off. The Bloc is poised to make substantial gains on Monday night. After eight years in the political wilderness, it could once again be a significant player on the federal scene.

Accusing the Bloc of obsessing over old arguments was meant, of course, to make the party look like a leftover from a bygone era, when talk of referendums and sovereignty consumed the country's political oxygen.

But the problem is that under leader Yves-François Blanchet, the Bloc has reinvented itself.

Blanchet has spent most of his time talking about Quebec nationalism, not sovereignty.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

In Quebec, this brand of nationalism is often called décomplexé, that is, unselfconscious or, literally, without complexes; its champion is Premier François Legault and it's seen as something new, refreshingly so.

Recycling the vieilles chicanes line makes it seem like it's the other federal leaders who are the ones stuck in the past.

Why nationalism, why now

Books will be written on why this unselfconscious nationalism has supplanted sovereignty, and why at this moment. In the meantime, though, here are a few sociological trends to consider.

For the first time in recent history, according to Scotiabank, Quebec's economy will lead the country in GDP growth this year.

There are construction cranes not just in Montreal, but across the province. Mid-sized cities — like Trois-Rivières, Sherbrooke and Drummondville — are growing and adapting to the opportunities of a high-tech economy.

Along their main streets, help-wanted signs can be spotted in just about every other storefront window.

This is a relatively new experience in a province where for years a sluggish economy was understood to be the byproduct of continuous referendum uncertainty.

But the long-term prospects of this growth face significant hurdles thanks to an aging population that is leaving the workforce in droves.

Economists, business lobbies and mayors are pleading for more workers, for immigrants. But these pleas confront more deeply embedded concerns: Will they speak French? Will they adopt our values?

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The perception among many Quebecers — especially those older and living outside of Montreal — is that the Trudeau government was deaf to these concerns.

Multiculturalism, a word closely associated with the Trudeau name, is understood as putting the needs of newcomers and minority groups before those of the host society.

To get a taste of how that was received, here are a few samples from the opinion pages in Saturday's Journal de Montréal, the most widely read newspaper in the province:

"[Trudeau] trucks in a radical multiculturalism."

He's among the "defenders of the multicultural orthodoxy."

Canada is a country divided by its "state multiculturalism."

Quebec, in a way, is re-modernizing itself, a process that comes with anxieties about the ability of a collective identity to survive the transformation.

As have similar anxieties elsewhere in the world, in Quebec they have been channeled into nationalism. That is what the Bloc is offering voters.

Using the vieilles chicanes line not only makes it seem that the federal leaders are out of touch with these concerns, it reminds Quebecers that the outcome of the old argument was never really resolved.

The province still hasn't signed the Constitution; its distinct society is still unrecognized by the federation.

Return of the repressed

Jack Layton and the NDP's Orange Wave of 2011 often gets the credit for decimating the Bloc, putting it on life support until Blanchet's arrival.

But it's worth remembering that was preceded by Stephen Harper's experiment with "open federalism," which included the parliamentary motion recognizing Quebec as a nation and giving the province a seat at UNESCO.

Blanchet points to these measures now as proof of what the Bloc can get done in a minority government. At the time, though, they were seen as stealing the party's thunder.

Chris Wattie/The Canadian Press
Chris Wattie/The Canadian Press

Trudeau had his own opportunity to demonstrate that Liberals too could practise a federalism sensitive to Quebec's continuing anxieties about its constitutional status.

In 2017, then premier Philippe Couillard — a Liberal and diehard federalist — unveiled an ambitious 177-page manifesto that outlined a very gradual way to get Quebec to sign the Constitution.

Trudeau, walking into a cabinet meeting in Ottawa just hours after the manifesto was released, dismissed the effort with little more than a shrug.

When it came time for Couillard to seek re-election, his opponents accused him of cravenly bowing to Ottawa, of being too co-operative with the federal government only to come home empty-handed.

He was trounced by Legault's brand of nationalism.

If Trudeau loses his majority, or worse, it will in no small part be due to the nationalist energy the Bloc drew from Legault.

There is a theory in Freudian psychology known as the return of the repressed, which in its less sexual variant holds that those things you don't confront will eventually come back to haunt you.

So long as Quebec's distinct character remains unaddressed in the Constitution, it is likely the Bloc will continue to haunt the other federal parties for some time to come.