Turmel and the Bloc: er, so what?

The left in Quebec is inexorably tied to the sovereignty movement

As a person who digests the news as part of my job, I love the fact that the Nycole Turmel was until recently a member of the Bloc Québécois. It’s a brilliant story: the interim leader of a wholeheartedly federalist party was until this past winter a member of another, this one dedicated to removing roughly eight million of its citizens from the Canadian equation. Big kudos to the Globe’s Daniel Leblanc for digging it up.

But as someone who has lived in this delightful province for all but five years of my life (there was an exile to New Brunswick that’s a bit of a blur), I say this: big deal. The deep lefty streak that runs through Quebec is, by definition, proudly coloured fleur-de-lys blue. Translation: if, in the last 40 or so years, you are French,  of a certain baby boomer age, and are of the leftward persuasion, it’s pretty much a slam dunk that you will have expressed as much through one of the various sovereignist options available to you. Before the suddenly-viable NDP of Jack Layton, there was simply no other way. And, by virtue of your membership in one of these sovereignist parties, you would have endorsed the prevailing line that Quebec is better off without its English rest-of-Canada cousins in the mix. I’ve written about it before: the left in Quebec is inexorably tied to the sovereignty movement.

But here’s the wee nuance that seems lost on the rest of the country, and one that is particularly important in the case of Turmel: the members of these parties, whether they are on the left or the right, endorse this  supposedly bedrock belief to varying degrees. The Bloc is/was made up of people like Jean Dorion, former president of the endlessly entertaining Société St Jean Baptiste; it’s also the former home of Jean Lapierre, who after co-founding the sovereignist party went on to be a cabinet minister in Paul Martin’s “home of the Clarity Act” Liberal government. Many, many members of the Bloc, along with the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire, are happy to live with Quebec’s current status as a province within a larger country. It’s a fact that vexes hardcore sovereignists and federalists alike.

And let’s have a look at Nycole Turmel’s record, shall we? First off, she was a member of the Bloc since 2006, long after BQ leader Gilles Duceppe had transitioned the Bloc from its original sovereigntist shock troop status to a hazy lefty bastion that, while ostensibly sovereignist in message, was more concerned with “defending Quebec’s interests in Ottawa.” Exhibit two: Turmel was member not of Parti Québécois—which is decidedly less whimsical on the issue of Quebec separation—but of Québec Solidaire, a left-first party whose own co-leader told me last year that “we are caught in the prison of the national question.”

Finally, and it’s amazing how few people have clued into this headsmackingly obvious point, but Turmel willingly ripped up her Bloc Québécois membership card to run for a dyed-in-orange federalist party. That alone should be evidence enough that her sovereignist credentials weren’t quite Parizeau-calibre. If anything, Turmel’s (temporary) ascension to the head of the party, like the NDP’s overwhelming victory in May, is proof positive that detaching the left from the sovereignist movement isn’t as impossible as it once was. How far we’ve come.

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