By Chelsea Craig.
Featured image via Canadian Press.
A high stakes provincial by-election in St-Jerome, Quebec will be called in the fall and a CAQ win could hint at potential electoral ruin for the PQ in 2018.
With the CAQ hoping to gain back the seat they lost to former PQ leader Pierre Karl Peladeau and his party in 2014 on one hand, the PQ on the other, faces a great challenge ahead of them with this by-election to prove its party’s relevance. A victory would signal the PQ have potential to lead the party somewhere promising but falling short of victory would fuel the argument of those who believe it to be a dying party.
Quebec independence has been a forefront issue in the province for over thirty five years now. After the failed 1980 secession campaign, supporters thought the second 1995 referendum would grant them the independence they sought. The results, too close to call before every ballot had been counted, left the whole country on the edge of their seats. However, since 1995, the popularity of sovereignty has seen a decline; not only can the proof of this be observed in recent polls, but it can also be found in the emergence of a legitimate third party.
The ADQ (Action Democratique du Quebec), neutral on the sovereignty question, started to show real potential in 2007 after winning some notable by-elections. This party later dissolved in 2012 to make way for Francois Legault and the CAQ (Coalition Avenir du Quebec). Legault and his party campaign on right-wing policies, winning seats on the North Shore and in Quebec City. The party marks a significant departure in Quebec from politics conducted along the single issue axis of Quebec sovereignty, proving sovereignty isn’t the only reason to vote for a party in modern Quebec.
So what does this mean for Quebec politics in 2016?
The PQ, Quebec’s leading sovereigntists are in the process of rebuilding the party. Between October 5-7, the PQ’s ninth leader will be chosen out of five candidates: Jean-Francois Lisée, Paul Saint-Pierre Plamondon, Veronique Hivon, Alexandre Cloutier and Martine Ouellet.
Lisée, a long time PQ member says he wants to make the party more open, less divisive, and stray away from the Charter of Values and a renewed sovereignty debate. Lisée says he hopes to attract anglophones to the party with this new approach, finding them necessary to help the PQ grow. Striking a similar note, Plamondon is not a career politician, but rather a lawyer who firmly opposes the Charter of Values and is passionate about youth involvement. He argues the PQ’s divisive nature is hindering its ability to move forward. Hivon is all about consultation and electoral reform. She’s been a strong advocate lately for medical assisted dying and presided over le movement souvrain under PKP’s PQ party. Cloutier and Ouellet will be running for the second time, both having lost to PKP in 2015. Cloutier wants to talk education, putting a referendum off the table until a second mandate, while Ouellet wants a referendum now. The former mechanical engineer says if elected leader and then Premier her party will hold a referendum in their first mandate. It seems as though even the PQ can’t decide whether or not sovereignty remains as issue, and if it isn’t one, what is the PQ’s raison d’etre?
But this existential uncertainty is exactly what the CAQ plans to use against the PQ during the fall by-election: the confusion, that is, within the PQ itself.
The Couillard Liberals know that winning the St Jerome by-election is a forlorn hope for them. Since the start of the 41st national assembly, 9 MNA’s have stepped down forcing by-elections. All seats were kept by their respective parties, except for one which the CAQ lost to the Liberals. Quebecers have been known to “teach parties a lesson,” meaning they don’t always stay true to one party and may use elections to vote parties ‘out’ rather than voting a party ‘in’. But the Liberals also know the PQ is leaderless and that they could call the election and “catch them with their pants down,” so to speak. And yet, the Liberals aren’t doing that. Instead, they’re going to wait for months to call the election when a PQ leader has been chosen – why?
For starters, the Liberals are not in a position to win St Jerome but perhaps the CAQ are. In what seems like an attempt to help Legault’s party, the Liberals have yet to choose a candidate for the by-election while the two other parties have, giving the CAQ a head start. Moreover, a CAQ win just after the PQ chose a new leader could foreshadow more trouble for the PQ in the upcoming election year, 2018. The ADQ built momentum for itself on by-elections before winning official opposition in 2007 – this too could be the break the CAQ needs.
The provincial district of St Jerome, found about 30 minutes north of Montreal, was taken by the CAQ who ran star candidate Jacques Ducheneau in the riding in 2012. Previously a PQ stronghold, the former Montreal Chief of Police Ducheneau, swept the seat for the CAQ. A riding which once voted over 60% in favor of independence in 1995, voted for a party without a clear sovereignty agenda.
As opposition, the CAQ boasted anti-corruption policies and stood with the Liberals against tuition increases. A short fourteen months later the province was called back to the polls for another election. The Marois government had introduced the Charter of Values by then and planned to campaign around it looking to score a majority government in 2014. But as the divisive Charter began to hemorrhage popularity, Marois introduced Pierre Karl Peladeau as the PQ’s candidate for St Jerome. Peladeau, son of Quebec media mogul Pierre Peladeau, made it his mission to achieve independence for the province. Starting with the famous fist-pump at his candidacy launch to his eventual leadership of the Parti Quebecois, Peladeau was a star, a symbol of homegrown success lending his famous name to the cause. Needless to say, Peladeau took St Jerome back for the PQ with 37% of the vote and became leader of the party in 2015 following Pauline Marois’s exit.
As leader of the separatist party, Peladeau was relentless about the French language and the culture of Quebec. Often putting his foot in his mouth by yelling “En Francais!” at concerts or making awkward claims about Aboriginal communities and Quebec Independence. Nevertheless, the PQ leader remained popular and was regarded as essential by some to reignite the independence flame until his resignation in early 2016. Now leaderless, the sovereignty movement seems to have a lot of soul-searching to do. Suffering from the same identity crisis as its federal counterparts, the Bloc Quebecois, the wider independence movement seems to have hit a stumbling block in Quebec, but ruling out its chances of a comeback would be unwise. The importance of the PQ leadership race weighs heavily on the party’s future, as does the St Jerome by-election.
As it looks to the future, the PQ has appealed to the province’s youth as its movement’s salvation – something Plamondon agrees with. The PQs have chosen Marc Bourcier to be the candidate in St Jerome to replace Peladeau. He’s widely regarded a man-about-town. As for the CAQ, they’ve chosen Bruno Laroche, former mayor of St Hippolythe, as their candidate. Laroche, who used to be a PQ sympathizer in the past, may find his past ties to the sovereigntist movement help his party’s chances in St Jerome in the long run. Not running a referendum campaign like the PQ but still putting a candidate, much like Legault, who has been known to support the independence cause could allure softcore separatists away from the PQ and over to Legault.
But will the PQ, in choosing a new leader, be able to find a new direction for itself – a new purpose outside of campaigning for outright sovereignty? Or will the CAQ overtake them in the confusion, offering the Liberals some fierce competition in 2018? The by-election in St Jerome may just prove to be a window into the future politics of the province, with residents saying they want to talk healthcare and the economy, rather than a way out of Canada. We could finally be at a crossroads where the PQ will have to come to realize a divisive sovereigntist agenda simply doesn’t interest Quebecers anymore.
Chelsea Craig is an advocate for youth engagement in politics. She recently graduated from Concordia University with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and is particularly passionate about Canadian and Quebec relations.