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MONTREAL — Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet hammered home a single message early on in the first French-language election debate Wednesday night: the only party in which Quebecers can fully recognize themselves is the Bloc.

He repeatedly tried to position the other leaders as out of step with the majority of Quebecers, whom he sees as forming a nation apart.

Blanchet’s mission this election is different from the other leaders’. He knows he’ll never be prime minister — and he doesn’t want to be. His goal is to convince as many Quebecers as possible that their votes are best placed with a party that won’t win government, but that will go to Ottawa and do nothing but fight for Quebec’s interests.

The Bloc leader hit Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as someone who doesn’t believe in the right for women to access abortion, a value the Bloc leader said is “anchored” within Quebecers.

“Can Quebecers recognize themselves in a Conservative government?” Blanchet asked Scheer. The Tory leader said his government wouldn’t “open up the abortion debate” but Scheer would not say whether he personally supports a women’s right to choose.

Blanchet painted Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau as a leader who refuses to recognize the rights of Quebecers to support what he called a secular state.

The Bloc leader was referring to Quebec’s controversial secularism law — known as Bill 21 — which bans some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, such as hijabs for Muslim women and turbans for Sikh men.

The law is also overwhelmingly popular among francophones in Quebec — and with the Bloc. Quebec Premier Francois Legault has demanded all federal party leaders commit to not participate in ongoing court challenges against it.

Trudeau said won’t commit to staying out of any court challenges.

Blanchet said the value of state secularism is something Quebecers inherited from the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, which included a social rebellion against links between the political world and the Roman Catholic Church.

He said he has “an enormous problem” with Quebecers’ tax dollars in Ottawa going towards court challenges against a law adopted “in their own legislature” in Quebec City.

Blanchet, who was acclaimed as Bloc leader in January, says his goal this election is to at least double the Bloc’s seat count to 20. Doing that could position his party to give a minority government enough votes to pass legislation.

But Scheer, who is fighting with the Bloc for the same anti-Liberal votes in Quebec, told Blanchet the Bloc will always be on the sidelines.

If Quebecers vote for the Conservatives, “then they will be at the decision table,” Scheer said. The Bloc has a lot of demands, “but it’s only us who can deliver them,” Scheer said.

The debate is hosted by the private TVA television network and the Montreal newspaper Le Journal.

Blanchet, 54, served as environment minister in the Parti Quebecois government of Pauline Marois between 2012 and 2014 and subsequently was a regular on one of Radio-Canada’s public-affairs TV shows.

He previously worked in the music world, where he managed Quebec singer Eric Lapointe and served as president of a music industry association.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2019.

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press

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