UPDATE: Bloc Quebecois organizers were proud to say 300 people watched the debate online Tuesday.
OTTAWA AND MONTREAL — When Maria Mourani, Jean-François Fortin and Daniel Paillé take to the stage Tuesday night at the University of Montreal's multimedia lab, the party will be lucky to get a few thousands eyeballs watching this third and final Bloc Quebecois leadership debate on the Internet.
Few Quebecers are aware of the contest, one candidate admitted to The Huffington Post earlier this week .
In polite terms, the Bloc Quebecois isn’t in the best of shape, and hasn't managed to capture the public's imagination after a crushing defeat in the federal election. The party held an impressive majority, 47 of Quebec's 75 seats, in March when the election was called. There are now only four Bloc MPs sitting in the Commons.
Two are running for the party’s top job, after longtime leader Gilles Duceppe read the writing on the wall and bowed out.
Its prime fundraising vehicle, the public subsidy, has been hacked, and most worrisome, perhaps, the party has lost some 17,000 members in the span of seven months.
There were some 53,000 members registered when the election was called, now a few more than 36,000 are eligible to vote to select the new leader on Dec. 11, many having allowed their annual membership to lapse.
That, however, doesn’t seem to have deterred a small group of fiercely sovereigntist politicians who all strongly believe the next four years will determine whether Quebec remains in Canada or charts its course toward independence.
The way the Conservative government takes decisions without taking into account Quebec’s position, that will “seal Quebec’s fate” either inside or outside Canada, Fortin told the HuffPost on Monday, pointing to the Tories' perceived bullheadedness on criminal justice reform.
“There are federalists who look at what’s happening and are coming to the realization that we have no possibility to say ‘no’ when we don’t want to adopt changes that do not fit with our values. They are starting to realize that it is impossible to have a strong Quebec in a united Canada…(and) that the only avenue is Quebec’s independence.”
Paillé echoes the same sentiment.
“There is still a majority of Quebecers who think that we would be better off in a united Canada, I respect that, but which Canada? The Canada of today? Or the Canada of yesterday? The one thing I am certain is that the Canada of 2015, it will have changed because for the first time in a long time we will have had a Canadian majority Conservative government without Quebec. So it is different than Mulroney’s-era and even Diefenbaker’s era.”
Tuesday, Quebec’s Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier had to return home empty-handed again after trying, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a softening of the Tories' youth criminal justice reforms.
Fortin had previously complained the Tories were plowing ahead with ideological policies instead of listening to expert evidence on rehabilitation. The province is also upset that it will be asked to pay for changes it strongly disagrees with.
The three Bloc leadership contenders all suggest this is an example of how Quebec’s influence is dramatically waning in Ottawa, not only because Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has few seats in the province, but mostly because the voice of Quebec, the NDP’s 59 MPs from the region, are ineffective.
“We haven’t seen them make a mark. We saw them support a unilingual Supreme Court judge,” Mourani said. (The party’s justice critic Joe Comartin lent his support to unanimously approve a shortlist of six final candidates including the Anglophone Justice Michael Moldaver for the country’s top bench, supposedly because the other names on the list were perceived to be worse candidates).
“We saw them let pass an auditor general who was unilingual English. We saw them jump for joy when the naval contracts were awarded to Nova Scotia and B.C., so they’re not too, too strong. Of course, it’s true that the NDP is there to defend the interest of Canada… We do not have any big dilemmas, we chose Quebec. Period.”
Unfortunately for the Bloc leadership contestants, few are paying attention to their message or their race.
University of Montreal political scientist Bruce Hicks argues that’s because no contender with any star power has thrown their hat in.
“Most of the party’s members are still in the fetal position after their devastating lost, because they are not excited about their own party, it is hard to get the average Quebecer interested in the party,” he told HuffPost.
“The leadership race itself is not very dynamic … And who wants to lead a party that doesn’t have official party standing in the House of Commons? You don’t get the attention, you don’t get to ask questions every single day, it’s not the most attractive job rebuilding a party. So I think at this stage, anybody who has substance is eyeing the leadership of the PQ not eyeing the leadership of the BQ,” he added.
Maria Mourani, MP for Ahuntsic, laughed when asked why she wants the top job. More radical than the rookie MP Fortin or the perceived frontrunner Paillé, the former PQ cabinet minister and finance advisor to Gilles Duceppe, is championing a message of change. She believes the Bloc needs to create a bit more distance with its cousin the Parti Quebecois — which, as it often does, is undergoing a crisis itself.
Mourani wants to bring all Quebec nationalists and sovereigntists, whether they are on the right, left or centre of the political spectrum, under the Bloc’s tent. She also wants the party to focus on mobilizing support in Quebec City for positions it can push in Ottawa. Two weeks ago, she wrote to Premier Jean Charest, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois, the ADQ, Quebec Solidaire and all the independent MNAs in the National Assembly asking them to pass a motion request that the federal government open constitutional negotiations so Quebec could “repatriate” its criminal code.
“We need to stop being scared of the constitution and scared to ask for constitutional changes,” she said. “We’ll continue work towards independence, but in the meantime we should try to regain powers.”
“It’s time to stop believing that Mr. Harper will go in the direction of what’s in Quebec’s interest, he wants to govern without Quebec — so we do not need to endure his politics,” she added.
Mourani also wants to decentralize the party by creating regional spokesperson positions across the province to bring the party’s message home and help the Bloc be more reflective of local needs.
“We need to become a party of militants, especially with four MPs,” she said chuckling, “And that also means a Bloc Quebecois that is also not completely centered on its leader.”
The Bloc Quebecois has long been a leader-centric party — something Fortin also believes contributed to its downfall. “The Bloc needs to be reborn through its volunteers… We need to learn to speak to people’s hearts,” he said.
Paillé, for his part, blames the Bloc’s top down approach on circumstances.
“This party was really launched as the Official Opposition in Canada … and that really kickstarts a party, but it does so from the top down. It means the leader is the leader of the Opposition, he has a big office, with lots of staff and lots of resources, a ton of MPs, 50-something and the superstar was always at the top. Whereas now, it is the militant — the volunteer that is at the centre,” he said.
That is the main challenge, he added, “We need to re-create this habit of the militant within the party.”
The party also needs to change the imagine that it is a constant whiner, all leadership contestants said.
"We need to propose new ways of doings things rather than blocking measures constantly," Mourani said.
"We became known as the B-L-O-Q-U-E Quebecois (Blocker)," said Paillé.
Fortin, the new MP for Haute-Gaspésie—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia, a former mayor and political science professor, agrees with both of them but believes firmly that Paillé, the institutional candidate, isn’t the man who can deliver that change.
“I think it would be a grave error to try to rebuild the Bloc Quebecois as it was,” he said. “Mr. Paillé is more conformist. I think that we should not use the same ingredients to make a new cake, because if we use the same old ingredients, the cake will be the same as what it was and will taste the same, and Quebecers told us they wanted a new flavour.”
Former Bloc Quebecois MP Claude Bachand, a supporter of Paillé, thinks Fortin is overstepping his bounds.
“He was just elected a Member of Parliament and now he’s throwing himself into this leadership race, he’s taking rather large steps,” Bachand told HuffPost.
Paillé is someone with solid economic experience, Bachand said. He’s better known and had experience as a provincial cabinet minister.
If he wins, Bachand acknowledges, Paillé will have a huge task ahead of him. The Bloc’s main challenge in the next four years is re-rooting itself in ridings, the defeated candidate said.
“This is going to be a real bare-bones job, re-energizing our supporters so we don’t lose them,” he said.
The Bloc has challenges, certainly, but its leadership contestants firmly believe it still has an important role to play and is certainly not down and out.
“As long as we pay taxes in Ottawa, we have every inch of relevance in Ottawa,”
Just because 71 candidates were defeated in May, doesn’t mean that our tens of thousands of members vanished, Paillé stated.
“The electoral game has at times helped the Bloc, because often the Bloc obtained a lot more than 50 per cent of the MPs without obtaining 50 per cent of the vote, and this time, it played against us,” he said reflectively.
The party, Paillé argued, is in decent shape. It has no debts but will have to learn to adjust to life without a public subsidy — one that some may argue made it complacent when it came to fundraising. The party, he points out, survived before the Liberal government introduced the subsidy in 2003 and will survive after.
“I have pledged that under my leadership the party will live within its means,” Paillé told HuffPost.
“I know how to count, I am a finance guy and I’m convinced that for the day to day operations of the party, the money that is there and that will come in will largely suffice.”
Although the NDP is still number one in Quebec, recent polls show the New Democrats are less popular than they were on election night. The NDP, according to a Léger Marketing poll published in The Montreal Gazette on Tuesday, have dropped three percentage points to 31 per cent support. The Bloc Quebecois, in contrast, is holding steady with 23 per cent — the same level it received on election night last May. The Liberals and Conservatives are tied at 13 percent of the 1,002 Quebecers surveyed.
Bloc Quebecois members will select their new leader on December 11. Members will vote for their first and second choice on a preferential ballot.
The party's dean, Louis Plamondon, an MP since 1984, told reporters Tuesday he predicts two rounds will be needed before a leader is picked.