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Lysiane Gagnon
Lysiane Gagnon

Lysiane Gagnon

The Liberals' high hopes for Quebec Add to ...

Another election? Quebeckers are rolling their eyes. If Canadians are indeed once more called to the polls, this will be the sixth time in five years for Quebeckers. Since 2004, on top of three federal elections, there have been two provincial elections, the latest in December, 2008. Not to mention the fact that a federal campaign will likely interfere with municipal elections scheduled throughout the province.

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The Liberals are pinning high hopes on Quebec. Insiders believe they can win as many as a dozen new seats (they now have 14 of 75 Quebec ridings). Of course, compared to the golden era of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, this is a modest goal. The Bloc Québécois remains an unbeatable adversary, and right now one can't see what could make the Bloc lose its grip on the province. The latest polls indicate the Liberals are more or less neck and neck with the Bloc, but such numbers are deceptive since a great deal of the Liberal vote is concentrated in the Montreal area and the Bloc remains by far the favourite among the francophone electorate that controls the majority of ridings.

Outside political and intellectual circles, Michael Ignatieff is even less known in Quebec than elsewhere in the country, and nobody knows why exactly he wants to topple the government. Strangely, Mr. Ignatieff didn't take advantage of the summer to make himself more visible. At the end of August, he did spend several days in the Eastern Townships, but provoked a wave of fury when he said Canada should stop exporting asbestos. (The industry supports 700 jobs and is the lifeline of the area.)

Most Quebeckers will be left cold by Mr. Ignatieff's lyrical view of Canada as a work in progress and a land in need of a collective dream. Francophone Quebeckers might have relinquished the ideal of sovereignty, but they don't think of Canada in romantic terms.

At best, it's a country where they feel secure, a good place to raise a family, a tolerant space that allows French to flourish, but certainly not the stuff of emotions. Mr. Ignatieff's passionate brand of patriotism will fall flat in Quebec. In any case, the Liberal leader knows and understands this reality - he often acknowledges Quebeckers have varied identities. So the Liberal campaign in Quebec will focus on other themes, including demonizing Stephen Harper, who has become a rather unpopular figure in the province.

For years now, the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party has been an empty shell. It's in dire need of new blood. But it's a bad omen that in the eight months since he became leader, Mr. Ignatieff has managed to recruit only three prominent Quebeckers, of whom only one will actually run for office.

Steven MacKinnon was an adviser to former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, and is said to be "cabinet material." He will run in Gatineau. Meanwhile, Jean-Marc Fournier, a former provincial Liberal minister, is working as a strategist for Mr. Ignatieff, and Marc-André Blanchard, a former president of the provincial Liberal Party, will co-chair the Liberal campaign in Quebec.

But for the public, the only real household name among federal Liberals is the ubiquitous Denis Coderre, a populist MP of the old Chrétien school. Mr. Ignatieff must attract more new faces if he wants to renovate the party's image.

At least, as is shown by the appointments of Messrs. Fournier and Blanchard, Mr. Ignatieff has managed to re-establish some informal links between his party and the Jean Charest government. If some seasoned provincial organizers follow suit, the alliance should help counterbalance the formidable one of the Bloc and the Parti Québécois.

But the question remains why, exactly, Mr. Ignatieff wants to replace Mr. Harper. Will he be able to provide a credible answer in the weeks to come, after having spent the past eight months avoiding the serious issues?

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