On a bright morning one week before the start of the Canadian federal election campaign, a veteran warrior of Quebec's separatist movement strapped his feet into the pedals of an old white road bike and began to ride north along the Saint Lawrence River. The unofficial start of Gilles Duceppe's campaign back at the helm of the Bloc Québécois was greeted with media fanfare and awash in symbolism — both in his choice of eco-friendly travel and his riding partner, Pierre Karl Péladeau, the new provincial champion of Quebec independence fighters.
As the contest has worn on, though, the crowds have thinned and the rhetoric has thickened for a party that was virtually wiped out in the last federal election. Duceppe himself is in for a tough fight in his own riding, and today's CBC News Poll Tracker predicted the Bloc won't win a single seat in the Oct. 19 vote.
Although polls show that the sovereignty movement is still alive and well in Quebec — especially among the province's youth — support for independence does not always translate into voting for a separatist party. In the last provincial election, for example, the federalist Liberals ousted the sovereigntist Parti Québécois.
Now, in order to preserve the relevance of the Bloc — a federal party whose raison d'être is to break up Canada — Duceppe must bridge the divides in a sovereignty movement increasingly split on issues and between generations.
The party has been targeting young, left-leaning voters by denouncing the proposed Energy East pipeline and criticizing its chief rival in the province, the New Democratic Party. At the same time, it has called for Canada to ramp up its fight against the so-called Islamic State and run ads that decry the niqab as unacceptable in public life in order to draw on a base of more conservative nationalists.
It's a risky game, analysts say, that could alienate separatist youth who prioritize the environment, and want to distance themselves from a strain of the movement that they see as xenophobic and associated with the PQ's controversial Quebec Charter of Values.
Duceppe himself was critical of the Charter of Values, which would have barred public employees, from judges to daycare workers, from wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols. He emphasized this fact in an interview with VICE News. But when asked about his position on the niqab and the worry that it would lead young voters to associate the Bloc with the Charter, Duceppe noted that most Quebecers are opposed to the oath of citizenship being taken wearing the face-covering and that for him it's an issue of secularism and the rights of women.
"I am against voting with a veiled face, taking an oath with a veiled face and receiving services with a veiled face. That is asking women to erase themselves from public spaces. That's what the Islamic State proposes. That's what Boko Haram proposes. Do we want to become that?" he told VICE News.
Last week, after the Federal Court of Appeal upheld a decision that the Conservative government's policy banning new Canadians from wearing face-coverings while taking their citizenship oaths is illegal, the Bloc released a short online video in which a drop of oil coming out of a pipeline labeled "NDP" morphs into a niqab. The video closes with a woman's voice saying, "I'm going back to the Bloc."
For many young sovereigntists this messaging brings to mind the ugly strain of nationalism that reared its head during the debate over the PQ's Charter and drives them not towards the Bloc, but away. One such is 27-year-old Julie Malo-Sauvé, an environmental consultant in Chicoutimi, a large town in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec. Malo-Sauvé said that her generation is more concerned with the environment and creating an independent Quebec that embraces diversity and fits into a globalized world than it is with face-coverings. For her, the discussion of the niqab makes no sense.
"For me it's not an issue at all so I just feel that the Bloc Québécois don't really get what Quebecers think about this," she told VICE News. "Maybe older Quebecers are very angry about the situation, I don't know."
Polling data backs up Duceppe's claim that most Quebecers oppose the niqab in citizenship ceremonies: a March Forum Research poll found that 67 percent of Canadians, 87 percent of Quebecers and 96 percent of Bloc voters took this position. But according to Yannick Dufresne, a postdoctoral researcher who studies political communication at the University of Laval and analyzes polling data for Vox Pop Labs, the polls also support Malo-Sauvé's suggestion that young separatists differ from their elders on how religious and cultural differences should be accommodated.
The NDP support allowing women to take the oath of citizenship while wearing the niqab, and Dufresne said that the Bloc exploiting the unpopularity of this position in Quebec is simply smart politics.
"It's really about how they can enlarge their base, but it might be a dangerous game to play for a separatist party if they turn their urban base and their youth base against them," Dufresne told VICE News.
The biggest challenge for the Bloc's strategy is the fact that for most Quebec leftists, old and young, sovereigntist and federalist, there is only one priority in this election: to oust Stephen Harper's Conservative government. According to the polls, this desire is leading Quebecers to coalesce around the party with the best chance of beating the Conservatives, the same dynamic that in 2011 saw the NDP take 58 of Quebec's 75 seats and drop the Bloc from 47 to four.
Asked whether voting for the Bloc ultimately served the Conservatives, Duceppe argued that for a sovereigntist, voting for the Bloc is the only strategic move. "The sovereigntists that come from this country [Quebec] are much better off voting for a party that wants one [a country] than voting for an adversary of sovereignty like Mulcair, Trudeau or Harper," he told VICE News.
"I played football for a long time. I know that strategy. I know it's better to give the ball to someone on my team that's running in one direction than to give it to someone on the opposing team that'd run in the opposite direction. Fundamentally that's strategy."
But some of the most important left-leaning institutions in Quebec subscribe to a different strategy. In August, the Fédération des Travailleurs du Québec, the province's largest trade union, declined to back the Bloc for the first time since 1993. Instead the explicitly separatist union is focusing its efforts on backing what it takes to be the strongest opposition candidates in the ten ridings where the Tories are polling highest. Of the six candidates the union has endorsed so far, six are New Democrats.
For Jean-Bernard Marchand, a 29 year old separatist who lives in Montreal and works for the government of Quebec, the Bloc's opposition to Energy East is a mark in their favor. But, although he doesn't link Duceppe with this position, Marchand also said that he is frustrated by the association of separatism with xenophobia and thinks that for now, an NDP government would also serve Quebec's interest.
"The NDP takes the position on sovereignty that Quebec will decide, it's a matter of if the majority choose that. But on the other hand they also have some good ideas on solidarity and the environment, so for me if Quebec can win on those things it's also a win for sovereigntists," Marchand told VICE News.
For his part, Duceppe remains optimistic that his party can turn things around. "For me, all the people I meet, don't talk to me about the polls, they talk to me about the issues of the campaign. We are about where the NDP was at the beginning of their last campaign and they are now where we once were," he told VICE News.
Tonight, Duceppe will have a chance to retake some ground at the first French-language leaders debate. However, even if the Bloc is wiped out by the changed priorities of young and left-leaning voters, the defeat of the party does not spell the end of the sovereignty movement.
Indeed, based on his analysis of data gathered over the last two provincial elections from hundreds of users of Vote Compass — an online tool that shows users how their political views align with those of Canadian politicians — Dufresne suggests that support for separatism is actually strongest among young voters, specifically those between the ages of 24 and 34.
For Marchand, the Quebec independence movement is very much alive, but in need of new champions who will prioritize building a society that is both distinct and inclusive. "We need not only a new generation of voters but a new generation of leaders," he told VICE News. "We have to reinvent the message because Quebec is changing, the old generation is passing, and there are real problems, social injustices that really touch people everyday."
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg
Simon Coutu contributed to this report.