If any province is likely to confound the pundits and embarrass the pollsters on October 19, it is Quebec.
At the outset of the 2011 federal election most predicted the separatist Bloc Québécois would take a majority of the province’s seats, as they had in every election since their creation in 1993. Instead, the BQ was decimated by the NDP, a party that had previously held just one seat in Quebec. Political historians are still trying to fathom the Orange Wave, as it was called, but most agree it had much to do with NDP leader Jack Layton, who wowed Quebecers with his performances in the national leaders’ debates and a popular Francophone talk show – even as he was fighting the cancer that would kill him within a few months of the election. Many thought the NDP win was a fluke; with “Le bon Jack” gone, surely the Wave would recede.
Instead, eight weeks into the 2015 campaign, polls are promising a repeat performance from the NDP. Leader Thomas Mulcair, the holder of that lone Quebec seat in 2011, has apparently consolidated his party’s hold on the province. His 58 rookie MPs there have far exceeded the very low expectations that accompanied their arrival in office, and despite running to the right of all his competitors except the Conservatives on fiscal policy, Mulcair appears to have constructed a sturdy bond between his party and the province’s dominant constituencies of leftists and nationalists.
In some ways Mulcair’s success in Quebec is even more mystifying than Layton’s. His conviction that Quebec should be able to secede from Canada through a 50 percent plus one vote in a referendum is presumably a winner, as are his generally dirigiste economic policies, pacifist foreign policy, commitment to roll back Conservative anti-terror legislation, and promise of a cap-and-trade regime to reduce carbon emissions.
But on a wide range of other issues, he seems offside with Quebecers. On Senate abolition, for example, conventional wisdom holds that Quebecers see their 24 seats in the Upper House as guarantor of their influence in Ottawa. Yet polls suggest a slim majority of Quebecers support abolition. Maybe that’s because the Senate is so scandal-wracked, or maybe it’s because Mulcair has branded it a silly English anachronism. “[It] is so passé,” he sneered in the French language leaders’ debate on September 24, “it’s part of our British traditions”.
Mulcair should also be hurting in Quebec from his on-again, off-again teetering on the Energy East pipeline, his promises of new national health and daycare programs that intrude on provincial jurisdiction, his early political history as an anglophone rights crusader, his commitment to balanced budgets, his once-fulsome support for bulk water exports to the United States, and his oft-quoted admiration for Margaret Thatcher. But so far, at least, he’s not.
With just three weeks remaining to election day, polling aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com predicts the NDP could win 53 seats (six less than the last election), the Conservative Party nine (+4), and the Liberal Party 16 (+9). The Bloc Québécois won four seats in the last election, ended the parliamentary session with two, and are expected to win none this year, including resurrected leader Gilles Duceppe’s once impregnable fortress in Montreal’s Laurier-Sainte-Marie riding.
Hold the NDP champagne
But hold the NDP champagne, for it was right around this time in the 2011 campaign when Quebecers started to change their minds. That time, the catalyst was a charismatic man with a limp. This time, it might be a Muslim woman with a covered face.
On September 15 a Federal Court of Appeal panel issued its decision in the case of a Muslim woman who had successfully challenged the Conservative government’s policy prohibiting people from covering their faces while taking the public oath of citizenship. The panel rejected the government’s appeal of an earlier Federal Court ruling, enabling the woman to wear a niqab while taking the oath – which she is expected to do in time to vote as a Canadian citizen on October 19.
The auspiciously-timed ruling instantly rekindled the long-simmering debate in Quebec over “reasonable accommodation” of ethnic and religious minorities. In last year’s provincial election, it was focused on the Parti Québécois’ proposed Charter of Quebec Values, which sought to ban public servants from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols, including the niqab, or wearing face coverings when receiving government services. The debate gave the PQ campaign a boost, although it was not enough to overcome public misgivings about the party’s aggressive posture on sovereignty, and the Liberals came from behind to win a big majority.
This year, the Bloc Québécois was first to push the emotional hot button with an anti-NDP attack ad incongruously linking Mulcair’s alleged support of the Canada East pipeline to his argument that face coverings are fine during the public citizenship oath, as long as they come off during a private swearing-in beforehand. In the BQ ad, oil leaking out of a pipe slowly transforms into a facsimile of a face covering, while a narrator warns that if the NDP is elected, pipelines will be built even if Quebecers don’t want them, and niqabs will be allowed at citizenship ceremonies even if Quebecers disagree with them.
But if this issue does take hold of the Quebec campaign, it is less likely to benefit the BQ than the Conservatives, who actually authored the policy. Leader Stephen Harper vigorously defended the ban on face coverings during the Quebec leaders’ debate, saying “Never will I say to my daughter that a woman has to cover her face because she is a woman.” Stoking this mash-up of gender- and ethno-politics may be “dangerous”, as Mulcair warned, but according to a Léger poll conducted for Harper’s Privy Council Office last spring and curiously released on the day of the debate, 82 percent of Canadians and 93 percent of Quebecers support the Conservative edict.
Ridings to watch
As it happens, Conservative fortunes may be rebounding in Quebec. From the spring until early in the campaign, the party was doing well in the polls, but it began slumping once electioneering was underway. For a while it looked like they might have difficulty just holding the five seats they currently have. But more recent forecasts suggested they may now be competitive in as many as nine.
Beyond solidly ensconced incumbents Maxime Bernier, Denis Lebel, and Steven Blaney, a handful of star candidates are fueling Tory hopes. They include longtime anglophone rights activist Robert Libman, former television news reporter Pascale Déry, popular Victoriaville mayor Alain Rayes, and ex-provincial MNA Gérard Deltell, who once led the defunct Action démocratique du Québec.
Libman is running in the Montreal riding of Mount Royal, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched his national campaign on August 2. Harper chose this riding, in a city that has been historically hostile to him and his party, for its symbolism. The seat was long held by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and has been solidly Liberal since 1940. The riding is so red, according to an old local political joke, a mailbox could win there.
Respected Grit lawyer and human rights activist Irwin Cotler first won Mount Royal in a 1999 by-election with 92 percent of the vote. In 2011, he only won with 41 percent, and the Tories finished a strong second. With Cotler now retired from politics, the Conservatives believe they have a real chance of taking the riding, not least because it has a large Jewish population, a constituency the Tories have courted successfully in recent years. Nevertheless, at this writing Libman appears to be in a steep uphill battle against Liberal opponent Anthony Housefather.
Pascale Déry is running for the Tories in Drummond, halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. The former TVA journalist was parachuted into the riding after losing the Mount Royal nomination to Libman. She’s in a tough fight against the incumbent New Democrat François Choquette, who was part of the Orange Wave in 2011.
Alain Rayes is running against incumbent former BQ MP turned Independent André Bellavance in Richmond-Arthabaska, while Gérard Deltell is trying to reclaim the Quebec City riding of Louis-Saint-Laurent – held from 2006-11 by former Tory cabinet minister Josée Verner – from young Orange Wave-surfer Alexandrine Latendresse. The Conservative candidates are thought to be very competitive in both ridings.
Overall in Quebec, polls indicate the Liberals are running at around 30 percent, which is double the Conservatives’ standing and at least 10 points back of the NDP. But Liberal support is heavily concentrated in certain areas on the island of Montreal. The Liberal Party has given its Quebec wing a lot of leeway in how the campaign is directed in the province, right down to a different style of poster than the rest of Canada, and is hoping the localized approach will pay off. They’re also hoping the niqab wedge issue works in their favour by giving NDP votes off to the Bloc and Conservatives, which could allow Liberal candidates to come up the middle in some ridings.
That’s probably what needs to happen for the Liberals to win in the Montreal borough of Ahuntsic-Cartierville, where the Grits have risked a lot of political capital. Their candidate is former Montreal mayoral contender Mélanie Joly, pitted against incumbent Maria Mourani, who defected from the Bloc to the NDP.
Joly, a close friend of party leader Justin Trudeau, beat six other candidates to win the nomination, but only after the deadline of the “open” nomination process was pushed to the end of August, apparently to ensure she had enough time to sell plenty of memberships. It still took three rounds of voting to produce the winner, who was promptly accused of cheating by a losing candidate on the grounds that 285 more ballots were cast than there were voters accounted for. The party dismissed the challenge, but it may have hurt Joly. The latest riding polls have her trailing Mourani by about five points.
Trudeau himself is no shoe-in in his ethnic, working-class Montreal riding of Papineau. An NDP-sponsored poll ranked him second to their candidate, former journalist Anne Lagacé Dowson, but others put him ahead, though not by much. In the last election, Trudeau benefited from Bloc-NDP vote splitting and got in with 38 percent of the vote. If Bloc support craters, that won’t be enough to win a two-horse race.
As tight as the national election race in many parts of Canada, in Quebec it’s the NDP’s to lose. It will probably take more than the niqab flap to seriously reduce the party’s hold on the province. But unlike, say, Alberta, where voters change political allegiances only once every few decades, in Quebec they can change on a whim. Just ask Gilles Duceppe and the BQ.
Tom Kott is a consultant at HATLEY Strategy Advisors, a Montreal-based public affairs firm.