MONTREAL — Elyse Bodnar, a long-time Liberal voter, says she thinks Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet is just "terrific."
Bodnar, who was in the audience when Blanchet visited her Montreal seniors' residence this week, said she discovered the Bloc leader during the first French-language television debate.
"He kind of got my attention," the 68-year-old said of Blanchet's Oct. 2 debate performance. "And then I saw the respect that others on the debate stage had for him, and I also respected him."
Blanchet's speech Thursday to Bodnar and about 50 of her fellow residents reflected the approach he has taken throughout the federal election campaign. He minimized talk of Quebec independence and instead focused on pride.
That strategy has seen his party steadily rise in the polls, to the point where the Bloc — practically given up for dead a year ago — is battling the Liberals for first place in Quebec, and could hold the balance of power in the event of a minority government.
Old Age Security pensions aren't keeping up with inflation and it's damaging seniors' purchasing power, Blanchet told his attentive audience at Les Habitations Le Pelican, suggesting the payments should be increased by $110 a month.
"You are the people who built our movement," Blanchet said, subtly referring to the push for Quebec independence without mentioning it explicitly. "You built our society, you built the Quebec nation."
If a future minority government doesn't have more money for seniors in its first budget, he said, "then we won't vote for it."
With polls projecting a minority government led by either the Liberals or Conservatives, the Bloc could have significant clout after Monday's election. But McGill University law professor Daniel Weinstock, who studies the governance of liberal democracies, says for most Quebecers, support for the Bloc is not a strategic calculation.
They like Blanchet because he makes them feel good about being Quebecois, said Weinstock, who predicted the Bloc rise early in the campaign. His first hunch came in the early days of the campaign, when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau uttered two important words: "For now."
Trudeau was asked whether he would join a court challenge against Quebec's secularism law. Known as Bill 21, the law forbids certain state workers, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols at work. Trudeau replied that a re-elected Liberal government wouldn't challenge the law — "for now."
"Blanchet latched on to 'for now' like it was a lifeline," Weinstock said in an interview. "And that was the strategy. The Bloc would present themselves as the federal defenders of Bill 21."
Criticized across Canada by journalists, pundits, and politicians, Bill 21 was described outside Quebec as discriminatory legislation that disproportionately affected Muslim women who wear a head scarf, by banning them from certain public-sector employment.
But in Quebec, the law is seen much differently. Bill 21 is part of a decades-old drive to reduce the influence of organized religion in society, its proponents say. And now that push has extended to ensuring the religious affirmations of the province's minorities aren't displayed in the public sector. The law has also became a symbol of Quebec's autonomy within Canada.
"Quebec seems to be in a mood, not of sovereignty, but of national affirmation," Weinstock said. "And the Bloc latched on to that."
Blanchet, a staunch sovereigntist, acknowledged his party's rise in the polls is not due to any sudden jump in support for Quebec independence. "I must admit ... that I don't believe it's because people decided yesterday morning that they wanted Quebec to become a country," he said Thursday of his party's rise in popularity.
"But I do believe that there is an increase in the feeling of Quebecers that they are a nation, that they are entitled to it. That they do not have to ask permission to be a nation, or to be proud of their language, their values, their territory and their traditions."
Back at the seniors' centre, Bodnar said Bill 21 is very important to her. Over the last few years, she said, she has noticed that minority groups in Montreal don't really "mix" with the rest of the population. Bill 21 can maybe help the city's diverse communities integrate better into Quebec society, she said.
Micheline Paquette, 73, said the Bloc will defend Quebec's interests and help ensure no outside government tries to challenge Bill 21.
"We fought to get rid of the priests," she said. "It was our generation that fought for that. We fought to separate the church from the state, and we are regressing at the moment."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2019.