OTTAWA — The western separatist Maverick Party will model itself on the Bloc Québécois as it prepares to field candidates for a possible federal election, its interim leader told HuffPost Canada’s political podcast, “Follow-Up.”
“The Bloc Québécois has been very effective in representing the interests of their constituents,” Maverick Party interim leader Jay Hill said in the podcast’s latest episode.
“The central thing that the Bloc offers to any party that only wants to represent a region or a province of the country is that they are going to vote and raise the concerns in Parliament of only Quebec or primarily of Quebec … And what we’re looking for, as [the] Maverick Party, is to represent the interests of Western Canada, not have to compromise and attempt to appease voters and members of Parliament from Central Canada,” he said.
Listen to the episode:
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Hill, who retired as a federal Conservative MP and government House leader in 2010 after arriving in Ottawa as a Reform MP in 1993, said that while he put all his energy into trying to ensure Canada worked for the best interest of all Canadians, he believes the current system shortchanges Western regional interests.
“All I can say is that I’m a slow learner. But eventually I did learn that it doesn’t matter which party you are [with] — and this goes for Max Bernier’s People Party as well — it’s that if you’re running candidates all across the country, you’re going to have to water down your policies in order to appeal to the where the greatest votes and members are, and that’s Central Canada. And so that applies if you’re from Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland, the territories or the West.”
The Bloc’s presence in the House of Commons, Hill suggested, has resulted in gains for Quebec that it otherwise would not have received.
Because it focuses people’s attention on Quebec’s point of view, he said, as opposed to “a Liberal member of Parliament, or a Conservative member of Parliament, or an NDP member of Parliament from Quebec who is always going to have to frame their representation based upon appealing to other regions of the country.”
Quebec Conservative MP Gérard Deltell and Quebec Liberal MP Joël Lightbound both disagreed, however, with the notion that the Bloc MPs are better regional representatives.
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“The Bloc Québécois can do whatever — they can say whatever — they want; they will never be in office,” Deltell said.
The Tory MP said he respects the Bloc and its leader, Yves-François Blanchet, whom he qualified as a “strong leader.”
But asked what he thinks of the Bloc’s portraying itself as the voice of Quebecers, Deltell said he’s always been uncomfortable with people “auto-proclaim[ing] themselves as the voice of.”
“I am the voice of my people. [Sole Quebec NDP MP Alexandre] Boulerice is the voice of his people. And Prime Minister Trudeau is the voice of his people. We are all the voice of Québécois.”
Deltell, who opposed the Bloc’s recent opposition day motion calling on Ottawa to apologize for the detention of nearly 500 Quebecers during the October Crisis, said he spoke against the move, despite the unanimity on the issue from the Quebec’s National Assembly, because prime minister Pierre Eliott Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act came after a request from the provincial government in Quebec.
“So it’s not because we have some position and they have another position that they are talking on behalf of the people and I’m not. No, this is the reality of Quebec, and this is a reality of Canada. Quebec is not monolithic,” the Conservative MP said.
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What the Bloc offers, Lightbound told ’Follow-Up,’ is “eternal opposition.”
“The Bloc doesn’t have the reality of the whole country,” said the MP, who also serves as parliamentary secretary to the public safety minister.
“I think the Bloc is having a hard time figuring [out] its place in the context where we’re in a global pandemic, and the people I talk to in my riding, they’re very much interested in having our governments work together so that we can go through this crisis, emerge from this crisis standing up.”
Instead, he suggested, the Bloc is focused on sidebar issues — such as demanding an apology from the federal government over its use of the War Measures Act 50 years ago and attacking the other parties for their response to free speech issues. The party, he suggested, is trying to cause controversy where there is none.
“I think there is probably more agreement than we might think between Quebec and the rest of Canada. We all agree that freedom of speech in a free and democratic society is paramount, is fundamental. And that and to me, the way I see it, as a Quebecer, is if we accept to live in a free society, then it comes with the risk of being offended sometimes. And if you are offended, then you have to fight with words and with ideas; never, ever with violence.”
Lightbound noted that the words that the Bloc jumped on — Trudeau’s saying that free speech is not without limits — don’t paint the full picture.
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“When you look at the full transcript, look at what the prime minister said, that’s essentially it. Freedom of speech is fundamental,” the Liberal said. “…he started saying very, very clearly that nothing justifies what we’ve seen in France and that, you know, freedom of speech is a sacrosanct value in our democracies and ought to be protected and defended.”
“The kind of politics that they [the Bloc] enjoy, which is fighting with Ottawa on this and that, and this and that. But here is no appetite for it in the population. I don’t feel it,” Lightbound added.
Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron told HuffPost his party didn’t choose those free speech issues — the use of the “N-word” by a professor at the University of Ottawa and the Liberal government’s response to the beheading of Samuel Paty in France after he showed his class the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet Muhammad
“They presented them by themselves,” he said, on “Follow-Up.”
“I mean, it was surprising that the federal government didn’t comment on the brutal attack in France. It took 12 days. To have it rise in the House of Commons, and it has been because we did that, we thought that it had to be brought [up],” he said.
“And about what you’re calling the ‘N-word,’ it’s a question of freedom of expression,” Bergeron said. “We are preoccupied by the fact that the prime minister indicated that there should be limits to the freedom — the academic freedom,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing to laugh at religion. It’s not a good thing. But if one wants to do that, he should have the freedom to do that in a democracy.”
Bergeron first came to Ottawa in 1993 as part of the first class of Bloc Québécois MPs after the party’s formation in 1991. He sat until 2005, when he was elected to the National Assembly in Quebec in a byelection. He represented the Parti Québécois until 2018, serving a short while as public safety minister in the government of Pauline Marois.
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“The other political parties in the House of Commons have a lot of difficulties to convey the preoccupations and the will of the Quebec people. And when we see that there is a subject of preoccupation, we are here,” he said, in describing how he views his job.
“And if other parties are not doing what they pretend to Quebecers they’re supposed to do, that’s their problem. But our job, we have been elected for that, is to convey here the preoccupations of Quebecers,” he said.
Hill believes party discipline and party loyalty ensures that most MPs in national parties always toe the party line regardless of regional interests.
The guiding principle for Maverick MPs will be that they vote for parliamentary business — bills and motions — only if it is good for Western Canada, he explains in a video posted on the party’s Facebook page. “Not whether it may improve their party’s electoral chances in central and Eastern Canada.”
Western Canada’s grievances are “much more easily defendable than the grievances of Quebec,” the Maverick Party interim leader told HuffPost, because those hinge on what he described as linguistic, cultural and historical grievances, whereas economic concerns drive the biggest complaints from Western Canadians.
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The Maverick Party, formerly called the Wexit Party, advocates “an either or” solution to the problems of Western Canada, Hill said. “Our solution and our mission statement is to achieve greater autonomy for the West, be it by constitutional reform or by the creation of an independent nation.”
Hill said he prefers constitutional reforms, but “based upon my experience of 17 years in the House of Commons and and ultimately being a cabinet minister, where all the big decisions are made for the nation, I believe that it’s highly unlikely, if not impossible, to ever convince central and Eastern Canada of the constitutional changes that would be necessary to treat the West fairly.”
Two changes he’d like to see enshrined include the provinces’ right to solely control the management, marketing, protection, and development of their natural resources. (The Constitution currently gives the provinces rights over the development of non-renewable resources but Hill believes it doesn’t go far enough as it doesn’t prevent Ottawa from interfering with bills such as C-48 and C-69, legislation that imposed a tanker ban off of B.C.’s coast and a new framework to assess the environmental and social impacts of designated projects.)
Hill would also like to see a so-called ‘Triple-E’ Senate — equal, elected, effective — where senators are elected in province-wide contests, and equal representation is offered to the provinces, rather than a system that disproportionately favours Atlantic and Central Canada. For example, B.C. has six seats in the Senate while Ontario has 24, and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have 10 each.
In his view, these constitutional reforms could convince western separatists to remain in the federation, but he thinks the Constitution’s amending formula makes it too difficult to achieve change.
The Maverick Party plans to field candidates in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
While Hill acknowledges that these provinces and territories have different interests, he believes “they have the commonality that they are taken for granted by Central Canada,” and they have been the victims of unfair laws, such as the national price on carbon, Bill C-69, C-48 and, “years ago,” the National Energy Program established by prime minister Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, which are popular in places such as Toronto and Montreal.
“You know, there’s a list of grievances that goes back to Confederation,” said Hill, whose party has argued that because Western provinces entered the federation several years after Confederation, they got the short end of the stick.
Hill has been asked many times about concerns that his party will split votes with the Conservatives, but he has no fear that he’ll help elect Liberal governments. The Conservative support in the West is so high that there is zero chance a Grit MP will be elected, he said.
“If I reflect back when I first ran in 1988 as a Reform Party candidate and all Reformers lost in that election, Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives at the time used that threat of vote splitting very effectively against us in Western Canada, and no Reformers won office partly because of that. And yet in 1993, the Progressive Conservatives were practically wiped out. In Canada, they went from a majority government to only two seats, both in Eastern Canada, one in Quebec and one in New Brunswick. And the West swept Reformers into office,” he recalled.
The threat of vote splitting can adversely affect the creation and the development and and the success of a new party, he said. But he said the real threat — where vote splitting was a concern — was in Ontario, where the majority of the seats are.
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“We’re not going to run in Ontario. So obviously we are not going to split any votes there,” Hill said. “In Western Canada, we will be primarily focusing, especially if the election is within the next year when we are still in our infancy, … on the strongest Conservative ridings, which are in rural Alberta, largely rural Alberta and and rural Saskatchewan, the east and north of British Columbia, and rural parts of rural Manitoba, where the Conservatives got massive mandates.
“Even if you split their votes in half, you’re not going to see another federal party elected such as a Liberal. So the people in those ridings will either choose to send their incumbent Conservative member of Parliament back to Parliament or they will send a Maverick MP to Ottawa. That will be the choice.
“So I don’t buy this threat. I think it’s an idle threat, if you crunch the numbers as we have, that somehow the Maverick Party is going to reduce the chances of Erin O’Toole becoming prime minister. We’re not going to split the Conservative vote and allow the Liberals to win.”
Without stronger support in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario, however, it is difficult to see how the Tories could form government without their foothold in Western Canada.
Hill wants O’Toole to win. He just wants him to have a minority government with the Maverick Party holding the balance of power — so Conservatives are forced to pay more attention to Western issues.
“Exactly. That’s 100 per cent correct,” he said.