Register Tuesday | March 21 | 2023

A Knife Fight With History

Your guide to electoral politics in Quebec

Quebec is a wasteland, a snare, an easy prey and a Rubik's Cube. It is the perennial electoral battleground, where campaigns are not fought over politics as the rest of the country knows them. Campaigns here are not about welfare payments or tax cuts but about "national questions" of dreams and possible futures. Campaigns here are about things the rest of the country would rather forget: referendums, independence and constitutional debates.

At fifty-six days—and despite the break—Canadians are staring blankly at a long, long, long federal election campaign. It doesn’t augur well for those who feel Quebec politics sap our emotional resources, as the province is once again auditioning to play the part of either kingmaker or spoiler. For the Conservatives and the New Democrats, Quebec is first and foremost a wasteland. Nothing short of divine intervention will allow either party to win a seat in the province while, naturally, the opposite is true for the Bloc. This time around the province appears to be at its most susceptible to the party’s siren song. Support for sovereignty keeps increasing and the movement appears to be content to piggyback on the Bloc’s success.

As for the Liberals, Quebec is shaping up to be a snare. To win, they must render latent the concerns about the sponsorship scandal. The easiest way for Prime Minister Paul Martin to do this is by hawking his economic record, which he does by raising the threat of separatism—according to Martin, a sovereign Quebec would put an end Canada’s routine budget surpluses. The problem here is that many in Quebec hold the Liberals, if not Martin himself, responsible for the spike in sovereigntist sympathy in the first place. The national unity card, a longtime Liberal fail-safe, now threatens to trip the party up and their minority hopes and majority dreams run the risk of bleeding away as the campaign machine gets bogged down by issues like asymmetrical federalism and referendum procedure—issues non-Quebecers doesn’t really care about.

At the same time Quebec is a Rubik's Cube for all four parties. The Bloc is faced with the challenge of delivering a statement convincing enough to keep independence on everybody’s lips (at least until the Parti Québécois can win an election, a chance they won’t get for another two years). Ontario may be the most coveted province—the one holding the greatest number of seats—but Quebec retains symbolic value in a federal election: no party with genuine designs on power can hope to form a government without a single seat in la belle province.

This has always been the case, although Robert Borden’s Unionist government came close in 1917, forming a majority with only three seats from Quebec. Quebecers took issue with Borden’s commitment to conscription and subsequently and in 1921, the Liberals swept the province, beginning seventy years of electoral dominance. It offers a clue as to what voters can expect from the parties this time around: a knife-fight with history.

The Liberal party as revivalist church

The night before Stephen Harper tabled his non-confidence motion, Paul Martin was in Montreal, giving a speech to the Laurier Club. Composed of those who donate at least $1,000 to the Grits, the Laurier Club is perhaps the most sympathetic audience Martin can come across. He didn’t disappoint, delivering a speech that put the fear of God into every federalist soul in the room.

After intoning a series of “Liberal successes,” well-worn statements about the economy and Canada’s place in the world, Martin turned to the faithful and asked: “Are we going to throw all of that away, that tremendous opportunity, and plunge ourselves in another referendum; dividing Quebec family against Quebec family, brother against brother, sister against sister, tearing us apart?”

Brother Martin was hitting upon this election’s Liberal money-maker, the devil in Gilles Duceppe’s disguise. In Quebec the party is trailing the Bloc by an average of twenty percentage points according to most opinion polls, but the feeling is that if they can just scare the bejesus out of “soft sovereignists,” they might stand a chance in Quebec.

Polling numbers in Quebec are tough to interpret. On the day the government fell, Patrice Roy, Radio-Canada’s Ottawa Bureau chief, pointed out that the Bloc’s 50-percent-plus numbers in Quebec could simply amount to the support already expressed by their current fifty-four seats, that the Bloc’s strength is growing where it is already strong. In other words, while most of those fifty-four seats are rock solid, they don’t represent significant gains in other ridings.

On the other hand, there are those who say the Liberals should be happy if they manage to pick up just twelve of the province’s seventy-five seats. And this is where the Liberals had better be ready to sharpen their knives for that duel with their past because, as Michael Behiels puts it, “They’re in for one hell of a fix.”

Behiels is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa, and an expert in Quebec politics and constitutional history. He points out that while Quebec had once been a bastion of Liberal support going back to the days of Wilfred Laurier, this hasn’t been the case since 1984. The Liberals’ Quebec wing, says Behiels, has never recovered from Trudeau’s departure, and since then has been unable to capitalize on the separatist threat. “Chrétien was unable to rebuild the Quebec wing of the national Liberal party,” he says, “but [their decline in Quebec] has been a long process since 1984 and they’re now suffering the consequences of that. It’s not just the making of the sponsorship scandal.”

The federal election as apocalypse
Behiels ascribes to a school of thought that doesn’t see this election as a repeat of the 2004 campaign. We’ve covered ground since then and the country is headed toward uncharted waters, he claims. The phrase “dangerous situation” is reiterated throughout our conversation, usually hovering around talk of the Bloc’s electoral gains.

To date, the Bloc has been somewhat of a benign threat to federalists. Aside from House Leader Michel Gauthier’s fiery speeches in Parliament, the damage the party has inflicted on federalism has been mostly cerebral, a theoretic danger rather than an actual one. But Behiels believes the party is rapidly becoming a malignant problem for federalists, one that will be compounded by Bloc inroads during the election.

To accomplish that, Duceppe will try to keep seccession talk limited, focussing on the sponsorship scandal instead. The federalist system has failed Quebecers, and Justice John Gomery has 1,400 pages of proof. “The Liberals have lost any ability to represent francophones,” says Behiels, and the result is a strong separatist presence in Ottawa, funded by federal tax dollars. For example, the Bloc will run a campaign worth about $4.6 million, $3.1 million of which will come from Elections Canada subsidies.

Once elected, MPs benefit from a number of resources. Given that Bloc MPs devote those resources to promoting various forms of Quebec independence, this further weakens the federalist presence in Quebec. “The Bloc monopolizes much of the political capital in Quebec,” which Behiels says is a contributing factor to the impending “national crisis” that he feels is inevitable.

To send separatists to Ottawa to destabilize the federal government was an idea that Réne Lévesque and the Parti Quebecois’ founding fathers entertained back in 1967. Lévesque wasn’t convinced it would work and so the idea was iced until 1990, when it was resurrected under an angry Lucien Bouchard. A little more than ten years after its baby steps, the Bloc Québécois is now a well-oiled machine exploiting the confusion of federalist approaches to the Quebec question. The impending nightmare for Canadians is that this machine, fuelled by tax dollars from across the country, peaks in operation just as Quebec voters head into a referendum.

Your saviour as a lover of loose loyalties:
Both the Tories and the NDP are considered long-shots in Quebec mainly because they lack an established political network in the province.

Despite Jack Layton’s attempt to rejuvenate the NDP, the Quebec-born leader hasn’t been able to change people’s perception of the party in his native land. Partly because of its roots in the Western-based Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, Behiels maintains that most Quebecers regard the NDP as too “anglo, foreign, and British” for their liking. On top of that, the Bloc under Duceppe’s leadership has refashioned itself as a progressive party and claims much of the left-wing vote in Quebec. That leaves the NDP as the preferred choice of Quebec’s socialist-anglophone-federalist community members ... all three of them.

Conservatives, meanwhile, have had a more tempestuous relationship with the province. In 1957, John Diefenbaker’s strategists completely ignored Quebec: Dalton Camp et al. simply told Diefenbaker that Quebec wasn’t worth it. They weren’t entirely wrong—Diefenbaker managed to eke out a minority government with only eight seats in Quebec, but he was forced to call another election within the year.

The second time out, Diefenbaker formed an unholy alliance of sorts. Unwilling to deal with the ramifications of a weak Quebec caucus, Diefenbaker fielded candidates from premier Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale. These were the authors of what has come to be known in history books as la grande noireceur, a rampantly conservative period in which rural Quebec was mythologized at the expense of badly needed infrastructural reforms. It worked wonders for Diefenbaker in 1958 though—he picked up fifty seats in Quebec and coasted his way to the largest majority government in history.

The conservative backwater boys from Quebec didn’t quite fit in with Diefenbaker’s government however, and the two sides split acrimoniously. By 1962, the Tories had given back most of their borrowed support in Quebec. Brian Mulroney managed a similar marriage of convenience in 1984, only to have it annulled by Lucien Bouchard in 1990, contributing to the party’s implosion three years later.

The party's fortunes in the province have essentially remained unchanged since then, mired in their inability to link Quebec's interests with the Conservative platform. So what can we expect this time out? Speaking recently on CTV's Question Period, Conservative national campaign co-director Michel Fortier isolated two elements of their strategy: "Addressing the Liberal incompetence and showing Canadians the ideas that we have for Canada." That may seem obscure, but so far that’s manifested itself as making sure nobody forgets Gomery. It’s no coincidence Harper chose Quebec City to vocalize his promise to, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into politically sensitive federal crimes.

But it will be difficult for the Tories to make gains off of Liberal incompetence; the Bloc has already established itself as the protest vote-of-choice for Quebecers and that's not about to change. If the party is able to advance an innovative approach to the shortfalls of federalism, they might just be able to woo enough voters to sneak away with a riding or two, but that's unlikely to happen because Conservative leader Stephen Harper seems reticent about addressing the National Question. Maybe his advisors are also telling him it isn't worth it.

Voting day as redemption:

There are eight electoral districts in Quebec in which the elected members sported margins of victory of less than 5 percent in 2004, and these districts will receive much attention as voting day nears. Beyond these eight there are several other districts which might be termed “weathervane” ridings, indicators as to how closely the partys’ platforms match the concerns of Quebec voters. Maisonneuve picks three ridings in which the electoral outcomes may tell us more than simply who has the upper hand on January 24.

The contenders: Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew defending against Bloc Québécois heavyweight Vivian Barbot.


Pettigrew is one of three Montreal cabinet ministers (Jean Lapierre and Liza Frulla are the others) who are in a dog-fight to keep their seats. This is an riding with a substantial immigrant population, a demographic the Liberals have long taken for granted. It will be interesting to see just how far from grace federalism has fallen for Quebec’s newcomers, if at all.


The contenders: Liberal incumbent Claude Drouin fights off both the Bloc and the Tories’ Maxime Bernier.


If the Tories have a shot anywhere in Quebec, it’s here. They placed a distant third in 2004, but Bernier is seen as something of a Great White Hope. Watch what happens here to see if Harper is even close to resonating with Quebecers.


The contenders: Bloc Quebecois MP Meili Faille defends against first Canadian in space Marc Garneau.


A former astronaut, Garneau is the proverbial “star candidate” in a riding that has a tradition of voting Liberal. Garneau says it’s time to get over the sponsorship scandal—if he loses, we’ll know Quebecers are still angry and the Bloc has consolidated their support.

This is an election about consolidation. Pundits, journalists and politicians alike agree that we are heading into an era of minority governments and politically instability, and in a political landscape rife with quicksand, woe to both those searching for identity and those scrambling to shore up support. Those parties that can make stable their networks of fundraisers, volunteers and sympathizers—that can make gains and quickly consolidate their power-base—will be equipped to exploit the Minority Age and emerge on the other side of this unstable era with a firm grip on Parliament. Now it’s anybody’s guess as to who that will be.

Jonathan Montpetit is a Montreal journalist. He is taking bets on an NDP majority. Any takers?