It’s been 19 years since Gilles Duceppe was elected as the first Bloc Quebecois member of Parliament. His victory and the Bloquiste tide that soon followed turned decades of accumulated Canadian conventional wisdom about Quebec on its head.
In the lead-up to the 1990 by-election, it was widely assumed that the blue-collar voters of Montreal’s Laurier-Sainte-Marie would not care enough about the demise of a constitutional proposal such as the Meech Lake accord to elect a maverick. Today Duceppe is one of the longest-standing members of Parliament.
A significant section of the Canadian political class also argued that Quebecers would never trade their influential place on the governing side of the Commons for a permanent opposition berth. Six elections later, the Bloc continues to dominate the Quebec francophone landscape.
Finally, it was presumed that the Bloc would sabotage Parliament and undermine Canadian unity.
In fact, the Bloquistes have largely turned out to be model parliamentarians and, much to Duceppe’s chagrin, Canadian unity has done well on his watch.
Since 1990, support for sovereignty has gone from a post-Meech high of 65 per cent to just under the 40 per cent mark, a 25-point decline no single federalist strategy could possibly account for.
More so than any past attempt at constitutional accommodation, the Bloc’s presence in Parliament seems to have reinforced Quebecers’ comfort zone within the federation.
To this day, the Bloc has regularly thrived on the miscalculations of its opponents. The latest involves the notion that, short of beating Duceppe fair and square in an election, it would be a) possible and b) desirable to deal the sovereignist party a devastating blow by cutting off its federal funding.
In fact, the Bloc survived on individual donations for most of its existence.
In his first federal incarnation as a Tory cabinet minister in the late 1980s, Lucien Bouchard tried to bring a Quebec-style public financing system to a reluctant Progressive Conservative party. From day one, he put his new party on a regimen that excluded big corporate and union donations.
The public funding formula Jean Chretien introduced in 2003 was a gift to the Bloc but hardly a lifeline.
In its aftermath, the party suspended its Quebec-wide fundraising drives, vacating the field in favour of the Parti Quebecois.
According to federal Democratic Reform Minister Steven Fletcher, many Canadians are frustrated with the notion that their taxes are funding a sovereignist party. Given that the subsidy is based on a per-vote formula, that is a bogus argument, unworthy of Fletcher’s ministerial title.
The Quebecers who support the Bloc are taxpayers, with no less right to have the $1.95 subsidy tied to their vote channelled to the party of their choice.
To craft new rules so as to disqualify the Bloc from receiving the subsidy would amount to treating its supporters like second-class voters. And it is hard to see how Parliament could become more relevant by trying to make it a private federalist club.
The escalating debate over the public funding of the Bloc is really another symptom of the growing frustration over the fact that the party poses a formidable mathematical obstacle to the securing of a governing majority. But the predictable result of a frontal attack on the Bloc’s election subsidy would be the disappearance of the already eroded Conservative beachhead in Quebec.
On that basis, it looks like this idea comes from the same playbook as the culture cuts that changed the game for the worse in Quebec for Stephen Harper in the last election.
Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.