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Coalition Avenir Quebec leader Francois Legault smiles as he visits Biologico organic tomato greenhouse during an election campaign stop in Saint-Sophie, Que. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
Coalition Avenir Quebec leader Francois Legault smiles as he visits Biologico organic tomato greenhouse during an election campaign stop in Saint-Sophie, Que. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Quebec election

CAQ leader François Legault puts economy first Add to ...

François Legault proudly waved a Fleur-de-lis as a teenager in Montreal in the early 1970s, buoyed by his political idol, René Lévesque, and a generation of nationalist artists.

Now a 55-year-old businessman running to become Quebec premier, the Leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec peppers his speeches with expressions of shame at his home province’s economic performance and financial standing in North America.

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His political aspiration of Quebec independence has been overtaken by hopes of economic growth and increased personal income. He wants to reshape values in his province, extolling the virtues of hard work and personal sacrifice on the campaign trail.

“Being ashamed is the opposite of being proud. I’d like to recover the pride that I had in being a Quebecker when I was 16,” Mr. Legault said in an interview on his election bus.

“I thought at the time that being proud meant having a country and developing it how we wanted. Today, I no longer think we have to play around with the Constitution,” he said.

In the last year, Mr. Legault has shelved his dream of Quebec sovereignty. Instead, the former Parti Québécois minister created a new party that is home to frustrated sovereigntists and federalists, united by their distaste for the province’s ethical and financial mess.

He is in second place in the Quebec campaign, with 28-per-cent support, trailing the Parti Québécois (33 per cent) but slightly ahead of the Quebec Liberals at 27 per cent, according to weekend poll by Léger Marketing.

The race is still too close to call, but Mr. Legault is hoping his party will continue to rise between now and Sept. 4, calling for a CAQ majority government that would allow him to remold the province.

His main theme is fighting corruption and government waste. At every campaign stop, he states his first order of business is “cleaning up” the province. But there is something deeper to Mr. Legault’s message, which entails changing the values of Quebeckers.

In his eyes, too many of the province’s young people are shying from the business world and tough classes like science and math. A father of two boys aged 18 and 19, he has praised students of Asian origin for having top marks in Quebec classrooms and Jewish kids for staying longer in school, leaving other Quebeckers behind.

“There is a 20-per-cent dropout rate in Quebec. In the 12 Jewish schools [in the province], it’s 1 per cent,” he said.

Mr. Legault wants to reform the province’s educational system, but also get students, parents and teachers to change their outlook on learning.

“We don’t value education enough, we don’t value effort enough and we don’t value surpassing ourselves enough,” he said.

CAQ officials don’t know whether their message will get through to enough Quebeckers over the coming week and propel them into government. The party is convinced that Quebeckers are looking for “change,” but the concern is that cynicism toward the political class is so high that not enough voters can be convinced that the CAQ will actually live up to its promises.

The second major challenge facing the upstart party is its fragile financial situation and its lack of on-the-ground organization. The main fear of party organizers is falling short in a number of tight three-way races across the province.

The CAQ has less advertising money than its rivals and relies on a smaller, less experienced staff, many of whom come from other parties and have never worked together. Mr. Legault’s campaign bus rocks along the province’s roads like a fishing boat, offering little luxury to the former head of Air Transat who is campaigning against the richer Parti Québécois and Quebec Liberal Party.

“We’re running a campaign that will cost less than $4-million, and they have $11-million campaigns. It’s a visible difference,” he said.

Still, Mr. Legault feels his sense of urgency at the province’s fiscal situation can prove contagious and convince Quebeckers to go for his brand of hard medicine.

“We still have some manoeuvring room, we’re not up against a wall like Greece and Portugal. But the trend is there, our debt is rapidly growing, the population is aging, we have to take action,” he said. “I’m an accountant, and if you do a projection over 25 years, it doesn’t add up. The situation is dramatic.”

His recipe involves taking on sacred cows such as the province’s unions that, in his view, have handcuffed previous PQ and Liberal governments. Through attrition, the CAQ would cut 4,000 jobs at Hydro-Quebec and drastically alter the province’s education and health systems, while forcing municipal employees to address a $4.5-billion deficit in their pension plans. He is promising a family doctor for everyone, tax cuts for the middle class and more school time for all teenagers.

The CAQ is not gearing up for major confrontations with the federal government, however. Mr. Legault actually believes that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tax cuts have allowed Quebec to raise its own taxes to improve the province’s social programs.

“We are pretty much on the same wavelength in terms of the economy and public finances – a small state, lowering taxes – I’m in agreement with that,” he said.

Mr. Legault feels that given a better financial situation, Quebeckers would finally proudly feel at home in Canada.

“My objective is that in 10 years, Quebec will pay equalization to the rest of Canada,” he said. “That would change the entire dynamic in Canada. If Quebec were a bit richer than the Canadian average, it would go a long way to changing how we’re perceived in Canada.”

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