Election campaigns represent a fascinating nexus between policy and personality, anecdote and analysis, idealism and self-interest, narrative and numbers. When the 2006 federal election campaign came to an end and it was time to reflect on what had happened, I found myself reflecting on a number of incidents and conversa- tions I had had over the years, in previous campaigns in Quebec.
On the morning of November 5, 1981, the morning after what became enshrined in Quebec political mythology as the Night of the Long Knives, René Lévesque’s staff and the Quebec government’s intergovernmental affairs staff were gathered in the building known as the ”œBunker.” The word came through that there was a constitutional deal ”” and Quebec was part of it.
There was cheering, hugging ”” and enormous excite- ment. One of the founding members of the Parti Québécois who witnessed the scene looked on in amazement, aston- ished at the evidence of a profound desire for reconciliation with the rest of Canada, at the very heart of the quest for sovereignty. When, a few minutes later, the news came that yes, there was a deal ”” but without Quebec, the despair and anger was all the greater for hopes having been dashed.
Two and a half years later, in July 1984, after Brian Mulroney announced he was running in Manicouagan, I spent a few days in the huge riding that stretched from Schefferville to Baie-Comeau. In a hardware store on the outskirts of Sept-IÌ‚les, I stopped and talked to the owner about how he felt about Mulroney being a can- didate in the riding.
He began by praising the sitting Liberal MP, André Maltais. He had been a terrific MP, he had succeeded in get- ting federal funds to modernize the airport and expand the port, he was energetic and effective. ”œI don’t understand why John Turner didn’t put him in his cabinet.”
Then, he said, I had to understand how important it would be for the riding if it were represented by a prime minister. It would be like having an industry; it would put them on the map.
”œI haven’t made a final decision yet, though,” he said. ”œI haven’t seen the polls from the West yet.”
A decade later, during the election campaign of 1997, I was driving through the Eastern Townships and coming through Ste-Catherine-de- Hatley ”” formerly Katevale, a pretty little village on a height of land with a gorgeous view of Mount Orford a few kilometres to the northwest.
There was a Parti Québécois meet- ing at a small hall in the village, and I dropped in. There were two Magog small-business owners there ”” one in the hardware business, the other in construction ”” who chatted about their hopes for sovereignty. They had both had unpleasant experiences trav- elling in Ontario ”” insults and sneers across the counter ”” and compared it with the hospitality they had encoun- tered in the United States. If Quebec were a sovereign country, they rea- soned, they would be treated with respect in the rest of Canada.
It is against that backdrop of hope, humiliation, pragmatism, power and pride that I tend to see federal elec- tions play out in the ridings in French- speaking Quebec, off the Island of Montreal. The election of 2005-06 was no exception.
When Paul Martin’s government fell on November 28, Liberals had few illusions that they were going to make any gains from the 21 seats they had been reduced to in 2004 from 36 in 2000. They knew the effect of weeks of televised testimony of the Gomery Commission, with its sleazy stories of envelopes, packets and brief-cases full of cash being variously left on restaurant tables or delivered to party organizers.
However, when the campaign began, there was some hope that the Liberals would be able to hold what they had in Quebec ”” or, at least, trade a seat or two with the Bloc. Liza Frulla, who won by only 72 votes in 2004, was obviously in a fragile posi- tion, as was Pierre Pettigrew who won by 468 votes ”” but, the thinking went, Marc Garneau might win back Vaudreuil-Soulanges, and David Price might win back the seat he lost in Mégantic-Compton. It didn’t happen.
The Liberal strategy, as Jean Lapierre said at the beginning of the campaign, was not to win sover- eignist voters, but to persuade feder- alists ”” many of whom had stayed home in disgust in 2004 ”” that it would be very dangerous to give the Bloc the mandate that Gilles Duceppe was looking for. Thus, when Paul Martin saw PQ leader André Boisclair campaigning with Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe in the first week of the campaign, he embraced the opportunity to call it a referendum campaign.
And, indeed, during the first weeks after the government fell, before Christmas, despite the fact that Stephen Harper was running a good campaign and Paul Martin was not, nothing moved in the polls.
But on December 19, Stephen Harper went to Quebec City and made a speech that, in retrospect, may have been as important as the speech that Brian Mulroney gave in Sept-IÌ‚les in August 1984, when he promised that he would make it possible for the Que- bec National Assembly to sign the Constitution with ”œhonour and enthu- siasm,” a speech that set the agenda for Meech Lake, three years later.
Harper began by being relentlessly local: saying that one of the first things his government would do would be to enlarge the Quebec City airport (there is a deeply held belief in Quebec City that if the air- port is larger, more flights will come; usually, it works the other way around) and he vowed to get the Pont de Québec painted, and to have a generous contribu- tion made to Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebra- tions in 2008. ”œWe must never forget that Canada was founded in Quebec City by fran- cophones,” he said. ”œThat is why I say that Quebec is the heart of Canada and that the French language is an undeni- able element of the identity of all Canadians, even if some of us don’t speak it as well as we should.”
It was the perfect touch: history, flattery, identity and self-deprecation, all in two short sentences.
Harper then went on to make more substantial ”” and more difficult ”” commitments: to settle the fiscal imbalance, and to welcome Quebec to the table at international institutions like UNESCO in areas of its jurisdiction.
It was a masterful performance ”” and set the bar high for his new government.
Meanwhile, the battle line between federalists and sovereignists was shifting. Since 1993, federalist strength was concentrated in a line that could be drawn along the Ottawa River to Montreal west of St. Laurent Boulevard, and out Autoroute 10 to Sherbrooke. Gradually, over the decade that Jean Chrétien was in power, the anger over the death of the Meech Lake Accord subsided, and French-speaking Quebecers developed a grudging respect, if not affection, for Chrétien as the aging warrior adopted positions that coincided with the con- sensus in Quebec: supporting same-sex marriage, the Kyoto Protocol, the decriminalization of marijuana and opposing Canadian participation in the Iraq War. The sponsorship scandal blew away those gains, and in 2004, the seats off the Island of Montreal that had been won back in 2000, some of them with Tory defections ”” Mégantic, Portneuf, Compton- Stanstead, Shefford, Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, ”” were all lost to the Bloc.
Duceppe carried on with a task he had started several years earlier, defining his party as representing all Quebecers, not just the descendants of the settlers of New France.
So while Harper was trying to woo Quebec City, Duceppe was trying to seduce Jean Talon Boulevard in Montreal. He spent most of the first week in January in Montreal’s cultural communities, meeting Algerian shopkeepers, Tunisian restau- rant owners, Haitian cab driv- ers, Lebanese activists and community leaders from a wide range of cultural communities.
That is multicultural Montreal, what Duceppe called ”œle Québec moderne.” And at Bloc gatherings, you could now hear the aspirate swish of Arabic and the musi- cal intonation of Haitian Creole in the crowds. ”œWe work with you as Quebecers, because you are Quebecers,” he told a group of Algerians. ”œWithout exception. Everyone who lives in Quebec is a Quebecer. You are part of this modern Quebec.”
It is the message that he gave again and again ”” across Montreal, telling them that there is a new confi- dence and openness toward the Bloc Québécois in these non-French, non- English communities. ”œThat’s very encouraging,” he said. ”œAnd it is very encouraging for all of Quebec, because it gives confidence elsewhere, in Quebec’s other regions, about the pos- sible future of Quebec.”
It provided a new insight into how Duceppe perceived the key to the future success of the Bloc. By breaking into the multicultural communities in Montreal, the Bloc could not only suc- ceed in defeating Liberal MPs, it could reassure francophone Quebecers who are nervous that the Bloc is ethnocen- tric and inward-looking. The result, he hoped, would be a new kind of identi- fication with Quebec rather than with Canada.
At one level, it worked. Haitian- born feminist activist Vivian Barbot defeated Pettigrew in Papineau, and Lebanon-born Maria Mourani defeated Eleni Bakopanos in Ahuntsic. However, as Le Devoir pointed out after the election, the Bloc vote had not actually increased in Montreal’s cultur- al communities, the federalist vote had split with the rise of the Conservatives.
This was the result, in part, of two strategic errors on the part of both Duceppe and Martin.
Duceppe never explicitly stated that his real goal was to get more than 50 percent of the vote ”” something that no sovereignist leader has ever achieved. But he did not deny it, say- ing coyly that he wanted to do better, and that 50 percent was not far from the 48.9 percent of the vote the Bloc got in 2004. Voters who were not committed to sovereignty began to wonder whether they wanted to give a boost to the campaign for Quebec independence. And some figured that electing a Conservative MP might be more effective punishment than voting Bloc.
Similarly, by embracing the idea that this was a referen- dum election, Martin did not mobilize the reluctant Liberal base, as he had intended ”” but he did succeed in doing what Lapierre had given up on attempting: pulling back disil- lusioned federalists from the Bloc. The problem was, they started saying they would vote Conservative.
In the first week of January, EKOS Research produced the first poll which suggested that the Conservatives were poised to make a breakthrough in Quebec, with 20.9 percent of those polled, compared to 21.9 percent for the Liberals and 43.8 percent for the Bloc. In the 2004 election, the Bloc won 48.9 percent of the vote, the Liberals 33.9 percent, the Conservatives 8.8 percent and the New Democratic Party 4.6 percent. But Conservative campaign co- chairman ”” now Senator ”” Michael Fortier was extremely prudent. ”œIf you were for one second to believe this, Stephen Harper is not doing so badly with Quebecers,” he told me over cof- fee. ”œIs it 20 percent? Is it 15 percent? I don’t know ”” but it’s not true that one out of two Quebec voters want a Bloc MP in Ottawa.”
Not long afterwards, I headed off in a rented car to see if I could find any of those potential Conservative voters in supermarkets or Tim Hortons. It seemed probable that Josée Verner would win in Louis- Saint-Laurent in the suburbs of Quebec City; every shopper I talked to said he or she was voting Conservative. Similarly, the Beauce marches to its own drummer and has never voted for a sovereignist candi- date; Maxime Bernier, the son of a long-time Tory and independent MP, seemed a likely winner, and conversa- tions in the hotel lobby and a drug- store confirmed this.
What was more surprising was a conversation at a Tim Hortons on the outskirts of Thetford Mines. Claude Marois and Jacques LeBlond were retired asbestos workers, and both remembered what Marcel Masse had done for the area when he was a minister in the Mulroney cabinet: in particular, the aid program for older workers that enabled them to take early retirement.
Marois is a PQ member, and said he was voting Bloc ”” for his friend, Bloc MP Marc Bouliane. ”œHe’s a good man, even if he doesn’t have much of a voice in Ottawa,” he said. But his wife was voting Conservative, as was LeBlond. ”œIn general, Quebec doesn’t have conservative ideas, but more lib- eral ones,” LeBlond told me. ”œBut this time, because of the scandal, we’re going to give the Liberals a lesson.” Even Marois sounded tempted by the idea. At the end of our conversation, he said, ”œThis is the last chance for the Bloc, you know. There won’t be scan- dals next time.”
Mégantic-L’EÌrable is 95 percent francophone, and, in recent years, it has moved with the trends. The riding ”” or its earlier version, Frontenac ”” voted Liberal until 1958, Conservative until 1963, Social Credit until 1968, Liberal until 1984, Progressive Conservative until 1993 and then Bloc ”” with an interruption in 2000, when the riding voted Liberal. On January 23, it voted Conservative, as did Louis- Saint-Laurent, Beauce and seven other constituencies ”” all but Lawrence Cannon in Pontiac winning in over- whelmingly French-speaking con- stituencies.
The Bloc could see it coming, and tried to stop it. For the last week of the campaign, Duceppe attacked Harper, claiming that Quebec’s lan- guage law would be in danger and arguing that the Conservatives would serve Western interests and not those of Quebec.
This culminated in a full-page ad in the Quebec City newspapers saying, ”œWe won’t let Calgary decide for Quebec” ”” with a stylized cowboy hat by the word ”œCalgary.”
Harper responded by saying that he could do what the Bloc never could: bring Quebecers to the cabinet table. And, after 10 Conservative MPs were elected, he did.
In some cases, the vote was a calculated investment in the potential benefit of having a member of Parliament on the government side. In Quebec City, where all but one of the ridings elected a Conservative, there was a complex blend of factors: a desire to be close to power, a wish to see federal investment, a populist anti- establishment reflex stimulated by decades of shock-jock radio, a residual conservatism and federalism, a resid- ual military tradition.
But there was another message as well. The desire for reconciliation with the rest of Canada, and for symbol- ic recognition, remains a strong, power- ful factor in small-town French-speaking Quebec. Harper’s improved French, his shy dignity campaigning there, his Quebec agenda and his extended hand all resonated with voters.
Now he has to deliver. Expanding the Quebec airport and painting the pont de Québec is easy. Settling the fis- cal imbalance and welcoming Quebec to UNESCO is hard ”” hard to achieve, and hard to do in a way that does not offend his Western base even more than seducing David Emerson did.