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NDP candidate Julie Demers sits in the park in the Montreal riding of Bourassa on June 10, 2013. As Liberal MP Denis Coderre steps down from federal politics, Ms. Demers is hoping to win in the yet-to-be announced by-election. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
NDP candidate Julie Demers sits in the park in the Montreal riding of Bourassa on June 10, 2013. As Liberal MP Denis Coderre steps down from federal politics, Ms. Demers is hoping to win in the yet-to-be announced by-election. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

By-election battle in Montreal puts Trudeau, Mulcair to the test Add to ...

Julie Demers is a community activist, hard-working and full of energy. In coming weeks, she will seek to become the newest face of the Orange Wave, the name given to the NDP’s 2011 sweep of Quebec.

Ms. Demers has her sights on the riding of Bourassa, a traditional Liberal stronghold that has been left vacant by the resignation of long-time Liberal MP Denis Coderre. Touting her roots in the riding, and her work in a local co-op and various other causes, Ms. Demers is hoping to conquer the Liberal bastion and contribute to NDP expansion across Quebec.

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While her party has yet to hold its nomination meeting, Ms. Demers is the favourite to represent the party in Bourassa. After finishing second in the last ballot, she feels an upset is within reach.

“We’re really in a position to win,” Ms. Demers said in an interview in a small coffee shop in the multi-ethnic riding with many pockets of poverty.

But the coming by-election is more than a local battle. It is the first direct showdown between Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, a pair of rookie party leaders who want to prove their mettle in their home province. While the Prime Minister has yet to call the vote, Liberals and New Democrats are gearing up for the fight, which is viewed in political circles as a clash of Montreal titans.

“It will be a test for the leaders,” said Alexandra Mendès, the president of the Liberal Party of Canada’s Quebec wing.

For the NDP, the goal will be to cement its place as the main federalist party in Quebec. For the Liberal Party, the vote will represent Mr. Trudeau’s first opportunity to showcase his ability to fuel a Liberal renewal in his home province. Whoever comes out on top will gain much-needed momentum in Quebec, a province that is key to any hopes of an eventual NDP or Liberal victory against the Conservative Party in the 2015 general election.

To boot, the by-election will be held in the two leaders’ backyards, adding a regional rivalry to the contest: Bourassa is located on the upper edges of Montreal Island, north of Mr. Trudeau’s riding of Papineau and just slightly farther from Mr. Mulcair’s riding of Outremont. The Liberals are banking on Mr. Trudeau’s charisma and upbeat politics to win, while the New Democrats are hoping that Mr. Mulcair’s more serious, methodic style as the Leader of the Official Opposition will win out.

New Democrats won a stunning victory in 2011 when the party, under the leadership of Jack Layton, defeated Liberal and Bloc Québécois incumbents throughout the province, grabbing 59 seats out of 75. But the NDP failed to bring down Mr. Coderre in Bourassa. First elected in 1997, the self-styled “24/7” politician and master organizer survived the Orange Wave, only to decide earlier this year to leave his seat and run in the Montreal mayoral race in November.

The Liberals have an edge among Bourassa’s Haitian community, which is the biggest cultural group in the riding and makes up nearly 20 per cent of the electorate. The Trudeau name still resonates among Haitians, given former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s reign during the first wave of immigration from the Caribbean nation in the last 1960s and early 1970s.

Mr. Coderre had managed to keep up the local connection to the Haitian community with a grassroots approach to politics and a constant presence in his riding, at everything from basketball tournaments to picnics.

Fabre Augustin, 39, remembers going to see Mr. Coderre at his office to seek help in finding a job. He was encouraged to go back to school, and even though the matter is of provincial jurisdiction, Mr. Coderre helped him in his dealings with Emploi Québec.

“I’ve now been a security guard for a year,” he said. Asked how he plans to vote in the by-election, Mr. Augustin said: “I’ve always been a Liberal.”

The Liberals have yet to find a candidate in Bourassa, but the preparations for the nomination battle are under way. Ms. Mendès, a former Liberal MP who lost her seat on Montreal’s south shore at the hands of the NDP in 2011, said Mr. Trudeau’s personal appeal will be a major component of the Liberal campaign.

“Mr. Trudeau is extremely popular, including in Bourassa, a riding that is quite similar to his,” she said. “The enthusiasm that he has managed to generate will help a lot in the by-election.”

Ms. Demers, 44, also hopes to rely on the help of Mr. Mulcair in the by-election, pointing out that the former provincial Liberal minister garners much respect for his pro-environmental stand. Still, she feels that her long-standing volunteer work in Bourassa could give her a leg up on her Liberal rival. She has managed her son’s hockey team and is working on greening initiatives in the area, helping people to grow gardens and add flowers to embellish their neighbourhoods.

“Mr. Coderre didn’t win in his first attempt,” she said, pointing to his 1993 defeat at the hands of the Bloc Québécois. “There are two things that people are looking for here: a candidate who is ethical, and someone who is involved in the community.”

 

BOURASSA AT A GLANCE

  • Located in the northern part of Montreal Island, it touches three other ridings: One Liberal (St-Léonard-St-Michel), one New Democrat (Honoré-Mercier) and one Bloc Québécois (Ahuntsic).
  • Liberal since the 1960s, except for the general elections of 1988 (Progressive Conservative) and 1993 (Bloc Québécois)
  • Population (2011): 100,453
  • Residents of Haitian origin: 17,040
  • Residents of Italian origin: 13,905
  • Residents of northern African origin: 7,220
  • Residents of Latin American origin: 6,185

Source: Statistics Canada

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