Featured image via Graham Hughes, CP.
Quebec has the most volatile electorate in Canada and no political party should count on the province to deliver the same results twice. If history is any indication, Quebec can’t be counted on to produce the same electoral results twice in the same riding, let alone in the whole province – an all-out political free-for-all in the next federal election is far from impossible.
We’ve seen this story before in the last federal election: the NDP was counting on la belle province to finally push them out of opposition and into government – but Quebecers had other plans for them. Thoroughly routed in 2015, the NDP saw nearly forty seats depart for Trudeau’s Liberals in Quebec – securing their majority.
Although at first blush, it may certainly appear with old rivals retiring and divided, that the Trudeau Liberals have nothing to be concerned about for the future of the party in the province. For one thing, we’re witnessing the collapse of the Bloc Québécois – a party which once held the majority of Quebec’s seats – and some key NDP members in Quebec, like Hélène Laverdière, Romeo Saganash, and Tom Mulcair are set to retire. These vacancies have left the Trudeau Liberal’s optimistic that they will gain off of the NDP’s back. But we must be mindful of the upheaval that first brought to Trudeau to power and the uncertain but profound effect that political developments can have on the voting intentions of Quebecers. While the Bloc Québécois continue to hemorrhage membership and ground, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives seem to be close behind to gobble it up.
Shaping up to be a battleground in the next federal election, the Liberals and the Tories are set to fight in Quebec for the support of undecided voters; among those most undecided: the wayward expatriates of the Bloc and the NDP.
The sovereigntist movement is a wilted lily of its former self. Earlier this year, seven of the Bloc’s ten MPs resigned from the Bloc Québécois caucus, citing embattled leader Martine Ouellet’s single-minded preoccupation with Quebec independence as the reason for their departure. Those members defected to form a new political party, Quebec Debout in May. Quebec Debout will not advocate for Quebec independence according to spokesperson, Rheal Fortin, who told reporters in May, “We don’t believe that our job in Parliament is to promote independence.” The Bloc Québécois responded by forcing Ouellet out with a leadership review in June; but while only 32% of party members supported Ouellet, 65% in a separate vote supported her sovereigntist ambitions that had torn a hole in the party in the first place. Current polling is not tracking Quebec Debout and consequently, isn’t tracking the effect of its emergence on the political landscape in Quebec. The Bloc Québécois has failed miserably to appreciate political sentiment within its own ranks and the province at large on the question of independence. Consequently, the Bloqistes are a corpse of a party, embalmed only by deprecated polling questions and the lingering tassels of its status and former glory.
Quebec is currently undergoing a profound political change where elections are no longer filtered through an explicit axis of federalism. It’s a change that has caught both the darlings of the fédéraliste and souverainiste camps off guard in the provincial election with the rising popularity of the Coalition Avenir Québec. The CAQ, which has strictly rejected intentions to hold a referendum, advocates for a kind of Quebec nationalism that is ethnically and racially charged. However, its dangerous policy musings and positions on immigration and integration places the CAQ as offside with the Canadian constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as many nationalists before them; removing the threat of separation simply reformulates the same argument for constitutional change that premier Daniel Johnson first made in his political manifesto, Egalite ou independence (1965.) The nationalism of our times the Caquistes have tapped into is either naively unaware or strategically cryptic, for the time being, of its collisional trajectory with Canada.
Until then however, separation is politically out of vogue. The Bloc Québécois and NDP, finding themselves on the wrong side of the issue, have subsequently payed the political price for flirting with independence and challenging the Clarity Act.
These complexities will push traditional Bloc Québécois voters to the Tories, resulting in older, more rural ridings turning blue in 2019. We caught a glimpse of this in Chicoutimi, where Richard Martel and the Conservatives rose from their 2015 result (16%) to a booming 53% in the 2018 byelection. Yes, of course Martel was a great candidate for them, but the Liberals only lost 2% of voter share from their winning 2015 score, whereas the Conservatives rose almost 37 percentage points. We can only attribute so much of these gains to the candidate.
The Conservatives played heavily on cannabis legalization during this by-election and spoke about boarder crossings. Earlier this month, Maclean’s found 48% of Canadians believe Scheer would best handle the so-called migrant crisis whereas only 35% believed Trudeau would respond best.
With the Liberals still sore from losing to the Tories in Chicoutimi (a riding which has elected MPs from all four major federal parties, I would add) they hope to regain momentum by taking Mulcair’s seat from the NDP in the upcoming byelection. Traditionally known as a red seat, Mulcair has held Outremont since 2007 after the resignation of Jean Lapierre.
But the NDP can’t be written off that easily. They know how badly Trudeau’s team wants the seat and won’t go down without a fight. Julia Sanchez is set to represent the NDP in Outremont, although she hasn’t resided in the riding for years. Sanchez is said to be very left wing and committed to issues surrounding climate change, inequality and women’s rights. Jasmine Louras has been nominated as the Conservative candidate for Outremont. Only the Liberals and the BQ have not nominated a candidate yet, although those races are said to be heating up.
Winning or losing Outremont will be a turning point for the Liberals in Quebec. A win for them could forecast total annihilation for the NDP in 2019 with many of their voters jumping ship to join the Liberals. But this too could be a dangerous situation for the Grits as many of their 2015 election gains were thanks to a three way vote split between the Bloc Québécois and the NDP. Ridings like Laurentides Labelle or Quebec saw Liberals getting elected with just about thirty percent of the vote. This was also the case in Chicoutimi where MP Denis Lemieux won with just over 600 votes. The Chicoutimi byelection held in June demonstrated to the Liberals just what a two way race between them and the Tories might look like, something they didn’t seem to think was going to happen.
While the Trudeau Liberals set their eyes on ridings in Quebec to make up for seat losses expected in the GTA and British Colombia, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives are also counting on Quebec to make election gains. As we saw in Chicoutimi, Scheer is determined to court the Bloc voter base, even garnering support from former PQ leader Michel Gauthier. Scheer has continued to reach out an olive branch to Quebec nationalists when he entertained the idea of Quebecers only having to file one tax return form instead of the two forms all provinces currently submit. For Trudeau, it’s imperative that he, while still backed with an electoral mandate, find a way to convince new voters to join him and show Quebecers that their voices will be best represented under the Liberals. With the forces of crypto-nationalism and social backlash present in Quebec threatening political upheaval, 2019 is definitely shaping up to be an interesting election.
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.