By Chelsea Craig.
Featured image via Ryan Remiorz, CP.

Earlier this month, Quebecers went to the polls and elected a new party for the first time in nearly fifty years. As far as the game of expectations were concerned, two parties shone while the rest were left licking their wounds.

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, Quebecers are known to vote against a party rather than for a party, we saw this most recently when Jean Charest’s Liberals lost power temporarily to Pauline Marois’ Péquistes in 2012. But the provisional nature of that short “interlude” in power (18 months) is not set to repeat again; not with Francois Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) winning a majority government. Legault won his majority by positioning the CAQ as the party of change, bringing an end to the PLQ’s fifteen year reign. Along with the CAQ’s colossal gains this election, Quebec Solidaire, a left-of-centre, independence party made gains off the island of Montreal, a first for a party that only held three seats when the National Assembly dissolved.

While the CAQ and the QS were uncorking the champagne on election night, however, the Parti Québécois were definitely not. Its party leader, Jean-Francois Lisée lost his own seat to Quebec Solidaire and the party lost official party status.

Op-eds all across the country have declared millennials responsible for the death of mayonnaise, engagement rings, and a whole host of other commodities – maybe we should add sovereigntism to the mix: unlike any campaign since the 70s, Quebecers went to the polls this election without the question of sovereignty looming over them as a dark specter. Millennials now make up a third of the already volatile Quebec electorate and are not afraid to vote for change. The Quebec electorate is changing, and it seems that the “traditional” parties can’t keep up. This election saw the change vote favoring not only the CAQ but also Quebec Solidaire as it attracted a younger voting bloc. The PQ even lessened its stance on the issue, promising not to hold a referendum in their first mandate.

A Breakthrough for Quebec Solidaire

Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois ran a campaign that spoke to younger voters. Preaching a socialist platform (to say the least), Massé refused to engage in old school rhetoric that the other parties comfortably deployed. QS ran a campaign on positivity: they didn’t spend time tearing the other parties down, something younger voters appreciate. Younger ridings off the island of Montreal turned orange in what seemed to be a rejection of the status quo. The hotly contested riding of Jean Lesage went to former Option-Nationale-turned-QS member Sol Zanetti as did the riding of Sherbrooke, home to many students.

With the risk of separation off the table, one would hope Quebec politics would finally be able to share concrete ideas on how to better our future. Yet, what viewers of the televised debates observed was instead three men arguing with each other and Manon Massé talking about her party’s platform. Young voters have come of age in a time of great political instability, searching for new ways to do things after watching the status quo fail to meet our needs. The Quebec Solidaire’s breakthrough this election is not unlike Projet Montreal’s in this respect. Valerie Plante and her team had less experience and similarly impractical ideas but contrasted herself from her opponents by offering a positive message in a poisoned political environment.

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Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois were chosen as co-spokespeople for Québec Solidaire at their annual convention last year. (QS, Twitter.)

What Voter Turnout Tells Us…

There’s a theory that in an effective campaign you appeal to popularly-held sentiments to “ride the wave,” QS did this faultlessly in aligning itself against an unpopular status quo: people wanted change, QS promised change. Consequently, despite an experienced team and a fundamentally sound economy, the PLQ suffered for campaigning on their good record. Under Couillard’s watch, Quebec has run back-to-back surplus budgets, valiantly reversed its apocalyptic debt-to-GDP ratio trend, and added four out of ten of the new jobs to the Canadian economy in 2017. But none of that mattered ultimately, not when voters wanted change. Set back by the desire for change and sloppy campaign mistakes (like saying a family of 4 can live off $75 a week in groceries), support for the Liberals fell fast, especially off the island of Montreal, in regions less culturally and linguistically diverse.

Liberal strongholds like D’Arcy McGee, Westmount-Saint-Louis and Saint-Laurent, predominantly non-francophone ridings, were beset by some of the province’s worst turn-out rates. Ridings with the highest voter turnout this election, likewise, like Louis-Hébert (over 80%), Montarville and Verchères, all ridings currently held by the CAQ, had among the highest concentration of francophones. So while anglophones were staying home, their francophone counterparts were not.

Even though Legault has promised electoral reform (something that would give anglophones, better representation) and promised “my government is your government,” it seems more anglos opted to stay home than vote for a former PQ cabinet minister and his team. Sometimes clutching your nose shut just isn’t enough. Anglophone and immigrant communities left disengaged and disillusioned by the campaign as a whole chose to stay home on election day. While their ridings were still handily won by the PLQ, only 46.6% of voters turned out in D’Arcy McGee, 48.5% in Westmount-Saint-Louis and just a bit over half in Saint Laurent. Voters expressed having been taken for granted, wanting change but not feeling represented by any other parties: a challenge the PLQ will have to face while in opposition for the next 4 years.

Another Chink in the Liberal Armour? Hah!

As 2019 approaches, the Liberal fortress of provincial governments is beginning to crumble giving license to every hack pundit in the country to write Trudeau’s Liberals off correspondingly. First Ontario, now New Brunswick and Quebec – and soon Ottawa or so goes the logic. And yet, Quebec’s provincial elections have rarely had any correlation with their federal counterparts. We’re talking about Quebec here, people! Quebec once gave almost all of its seats to Pierre Elliott Trudeau in back to back elections, while giving René Lévesque, a majority government provincially and holding a sovereignty referendum simultaneously. Quebec is a province that votes against a party rather than for a party and this time, Quebecers were saying “non.” No to Liberal Party that reigned too long, no to the Parti Quebecois that continues to live in the past.

Believing that this election represents a right-wing, conservative upheaval is simply not the whole picture. This election lacked luster, it was plagued with horrible voter turnout and cynicism, especially among minorities. Reducing the rate of immigration, a promise of the CAQ, was not the main motivation behind their support. People were tired of the Liberals, they did not want to hear about how everything is so great, especially when they don’t feel that way. It’s unfortunate their government just wasn’t listening. A new generation is expecting more and they are willing to gamble on new parties to see what else is out there, a new challenge for traditional parties indeed.

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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.

Twitter: @chelseacraig_

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