MONTREAL -- Whether it was on abortion, religion, or health care, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet hammered home a single message Wednesday night: the only party in which Quebecers can fully recognize themselves is the one he heads.

During the first French-language election debate, where leaders fought for the hearts of Quebecers -- and their coveted 78 seats in the House of Commons-- Blanchet repeatedly tried to position his opponents as out of step with the majority of Quebecers, whom he sees as forming a nation apart.

And the Bloc leader used the debate to try to convince Quebecers he would be the champion in Ottawa of the policies put forward by their highly popular and self-professed "nationalist" premier, Francois Legault.

Early on, Blanchet hit the Conservative leader on abortion, painting Andrew Scheer as a man who rejects a value "anchored" within Quebecers. He then described Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau as a haughty prime minister who looks down on Quebecers who desire a secular state.

And he criticized the NDP leader for wanting to expand medical coverage across Canada, calling Jagmeet Singh a centralizing politician looking to strip Quebecers of their constitutional right to determine their own health care needs.

"I am going to Ottawa to defend the right of Quebec to function in its own way," said Blanchet, who was acclaimed as Bloc leader in January. "I don't want to send people to Ottawa who want to undue what we are doing in Quebec."

Blanchet was in his element Wednesday, during the debate hosted by the private TVA television network and the newspaper Le Journal de Montreal. He has the strongest command of the French language, and perhaps the least pressure on his shoulders because his mission this campaign 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.

On abortion, Blanchet demanded Scheer tell Quebecers where the Tory leader stands on a women's right to control her own body. Scheer said his government wouldn't "open up the abortion debate" but the Conservative leader would not say whether he personally supports a women's right to abort a pregnancy.

"Can Quebecers recognize themselves in a Conservative government?" Blanchet asked Scheer.

Blanchet asked Trudeau to accept Premier Legault's demand that he stay out of any court challenges against Quebec's secularism law, known as Bill 21.

The legislation bans some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, such as hijabs for Muslim women and turbans for Sikh men.

Bill 21 is also overwhelmingly popular among francophones in Quebec -- and with the Bloc. But Trudeau said he wouldn'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's 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, and exact concessions in exchange. A Leger poll published Wednesday put the Liberals at 34 per cent in Quebec, with the Conservatives and the Bloc at 25 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.

But Scheer, who is fighting with the Bloc for the same anti-Liberal votes in the province, 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.

Another one of Legault's demands championed by Blanchet is to see Quebecers file only one income tax return. Quebec requires residents to file separate tax forms, but is willing to combine them if the provincial government gets to administer both the federal and provincial systems.

The Conservatives have committed to the change, but Singh and Trudeau are opposed to the idea, which would see about 4,000 federal civil servants lose their jobs in Quebec and put federal taxes in the hands of a provincial government.

Scheer used that issue as way to prove only his party can put Quebec's interests into law. "It's only us who can give you a single income-tax return," Scheer said.

Blanchet, 54, was 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.

Toward the end of the debate, moderator Pierre Bruneau asked Blanchet a simple question that went to the heart of the Bloc's purpose: How many laws has the Bloc gotten adopted in Ottawa?

Blanchet evaded the question, knowing the answer was zero.

"The contribution of the Bloc is to use all the advantages of the parliamentary system to get gains for Quebec," Blanchet said.

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