Support for Quebec sovereignty is at a low point. The Parti Québécois is in third place in the polls and dropping. The Bloc Québécois isn’t on track to do any better, despite the arrival of new leader Martine Ouellet in March.
The future for the Bloc looks bleak. But instead of disappearing altogether — or making a return to its glory days of the 1990s and 2000s — could it instead live on as a 21st-century version of the Créditistes?
With 10 seats in the 2015 federal election, the Bloc fell short of the 12 seats required to be an officially recognized party in the House of Commons, a status that comes with more perks and resources. The party has lacked this status since the 2011 election, when the Bloc, decimated by the New Democrats, won just four seats.
Its woes have continued. The party raised just $91,197 from 1,125 contributions in the second quarter of 2017, its worst second-quarter performance since 2013. The Greens, who hold just one seat in the House and who received fewer votes nationwide than the Bloc did in Quebec in 2015, raised more than five times as much.
The Bloc is averaging just 18 per cent support in the polls, down about a point from where it stood in the last election. While that is good enough for second place in the province thanks to the weaker support for the NDP and Conservatives, the Bloc would be unlikely to win more than the 10 seats it currently holds if an election were held today.
It’s a far cry from the dominant Bloc that won an average of 43 per cent of the vote and 48 seats between 1993 and 2008. But historically, those results may have been anomalous.
Instead, the Bloc’s position today might be more in line with the past performance of alternative parties in Quebec.
Conscription and the Bloc populaire
The province’s first split with the two traditional parties came as a result of the Second World War and the issue of conscription. Quebec voted 72 per cent against it in the 1942 plebiscite while it was approved by 80 per cent of voters in the rest of the country.
The issue not only split Quebec Liberals in the province, but also gave birth to the Bloc populaire. In the 1945 election, conducted in the last months of the war, the Bloc populaire garnered 12 per cent of the vote and won two seats. Another 23 per cent of Quebecers voted for independent or “Independent Liberal” candidates, electing 13 of them.
Social Credit, in its foray into Quebec, captured 4 per cent of the vote but did not elect any MPs.
That independent streak continued into 1949, when three independents were elected and the Union des électeurs, a Quebec-based off-shoot of Social Credit, captured 5 per cent of the vote. In 1953 and 1957, more independent MPs were elected in Quebec.
Caouette and the Créditistes
In 1962, Social Credit captured 26 per cent of the vote in Quebec and won 26 seats. Though led by the Albertan Robert N. Thompson, Quebec provided all but four of Social Credit’s seats thanks to Réal Caouette, the party’s standard bearer in Quebec. The party repeated its success in 1963, winning 20 seats and 27 per cent of the vote in Quebec, but just four seats in the rest of the country.
Caouette then split off to form the Ralliement des créditistes, winning 18 per cent of the vote and nine seats in Quebec in 1965 and 16 per cent and 14 seats in 1968.
Social Credit subsequently reunited under Caouette’s leadership, though it remained a Quebec-focused party. The Créditistes peaked again in 1972 with 24 per cent of the vote and 15 seats, but the party lost both seat and vote share in 1974 and again in 1979, when Fabien Roy took over.
In 1980, the Créditistes slid to just 6 per cent of the vote in Quebec and were shut out of the legislature. They wouldn’t return.
But during their heyday from 1962 to 1979, the Créditistes averaged 21 per cent of the vote and 14 seats in Quebec — not dissimilar to where the Bloc finds itself today.
And that is a more common position for non-national parties in Quebec. The Bloc’s period of strength, which stretched roughly 20 years from its inception in 1990 to its defeat in 2011, represents a short period of time in the 75 years since the conscription plebiscite of 1942.
Different parties but same role?
The Bloc Québécois is not the direct successor of the Crédististes. Though Caouette’s party espoused Quebec nationalism and support for the French language, it was not in favour of Quebec sovereignty. It was a social conservative party that subscribed to the eccentric social credit economic theory, while the Bloc Québécois is largely to the left of the political spectrum.
But the Bloc could play the same role that the Créditistes did in the 1960s and 1970s in providing an outlet for nationalist voters in Quebec.
With sovereignty no longer a pressing cause, that could be the party’s only way of maintaining relevancy. The Bloc was born out of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, and the national unity crises of the 1990s kept it an important force in federal politics. Its support was beginning to drift in the early 2000s until it was saved by outrage over the sponsorship scandal.
While the Bloc no longer has these issues to keep it afloat, Quebecers have a track record of voting for an alternative option on the ballot.
But with the Parti Québécois finding itself squeezed out by the centre-right nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec and the left-wing sovereigntist Québec Solidaire at the provincial level, this could also serve as a warning to the Bloc Québécois that it can be easily replaced. In the end, the Créditistes did disappear from the electoral map.
Nevertheless, history suggests that a significant proportion of Quebecers are unlikely to move away entirely from supporting a regionally focused party. That might mean the Bloc Québécois could endure — though much-reduced — for some time to come.