The man who led the last anglophone revolt against the Quebec Liberals says the time has come again for the community to rethink its electoral options and consider voting for another upstart party: the Coalition Avenir Quebec.
Robert Libman’s Equality party made a historic, if short-lived, breakthrough in 1989 by stealing four safe seats from the Liberals while championing the cause of English rights.
Since then, Anglos have reliably supported the pro-Canada Liberals. But they have done so with questionable enthusiasm, as anglophone ridings had some of the lowest turnout rates in the last provincial election.
Premier Jean Charest has expressed concern about this trend on the campaign trail.
Last week, he spent several days telling English-language media that voters who stay home on election day – or who vote for the Coalition – are effectively supporting another referendum on Quebec’s independence.
That was the last straw for Mr. Libman.
He was already annoyed with what he saw as the Liberals caving to nationalist pressure, on the language of education, on commercial signs, and on the ease of obtaining English services at the provincial health-care hotline.
The use of fear scenarios, he says, pushed him over the edge.
“I felt rather insulted. He’s very condescending, as if we don’t have a choice but to vote Liberal otherwise we risk separation,” Mr. Libman told The Canadian Press.
“I think the electorate is a little bit smarter than that.”
The anglophone vote represents a huge asset for the Liberals. In 2008, Mr. Charest’s party won all 24 provincial ridings where anglophones make up more than 10 per of the population.
That means the Liberals can start a campaign having essentially locked up more than one-third of the seats required for a majority in Quebec’s 125-seat legislature.
In turn, English-speaking Quebeckers have been awarded three seats in the 26-member cabinet. The Charest Liberals have also resisted calls from opponents who want to severely toughen language laws and extend them to junior colleges.
Mr. Libman hopes Anglos vote strategically.
He wants them to give the Liberals a jolt – but not in areas where that might help elect members of the more nationalist, pro-independence Parti Québécois.
“Anglophones... should perhaps, in order to send a message to the Liberals, consider voting for the CAQ,” said Mr. Libman, “(but) only in areas where there is no danger of splitting the vote and electing the PQ.”
The ridings Mr. Libman has in mind are largely located in Montreal’s west end, with a few more in western Quebec. There are also a handful of ridings where any wavering by Anglo voters could spark big swings in close local races.
A recent byelection offered a vivid illustration of the scenario Mr. Libman warned about, in the Liberals’ stronghold of Argenteuil in June.
Liberal voters didn’t turn out in the same numbers. A few flocked to the new Coalition. And the PQ won the riding.
According to 2001 census figures, the riding is more than 15 per cent anglophone. In the post-defeat analysis, it was determined that many traditional Liberal supporters just didn’t bother to vote.
Some might find irony, and perhaps even symbolism, in Mr. Libman’s political path.
Having once led an Anglo voter rebellion against the Quebec Liberals for being too nationalistic, he is now encouraging voters to consider supporting a party led by a longtime separatist.
Francois Legault, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister and sovereigntist, is promising to never revisit the independence question.
He says his new party would bring together people from different political backgrounds in the hope of tackling other priorities.
Mr. Legault has taken some steps to court the Anglo vote, encouraging those who feel taken for granted by the Liberals or who are tired of ethics scandals to join him instead.
He had agreed to take part in an English-language debate with Mr. Charest on a Montreal radio station, although PQ Leader Pauline Marois turned down the invitation because she said her English wasn’t good enough. The party also promises to launch an English version of its website by the end of the week.
The Coalition is not making any promises based on language – and it doesn’t plan major changes to the status quo.
What is it doing? It’s promising to never, ever revisit the independence question.
It’s also betting that by focusing on issues that all Quebeckers care about, like stimulating the economy and fighting corruption, anglophone voters might feel comfortable supporting them.
The Coalition’s attempt to win plaudits on the corruption issue may have been helped by its recruitment of famous whistleblower Jacques Duchesneau as a candidate.
“The corruption and collusion that’s been happening needs a serious cleanup,” said Dominique Anglade, the CAQ’s president and herself a candidate in a riding north of Montreal.
“It doesn’t matter what language you speak in Quebec, this is affecting all of us.”
Of course, courting the Anglo community can quickly become a liability in Quebec politics – where the votes that matter are more frequently found on soft nationalist terrain.
The PQ language critic this week criticized Mr. Legault. His alleged transgression: tweeting in English.
“To whom is the English part of your campaign addressed?” Yves-Francois Blanchet wrote on Twitter, in response to one of Legault’s messages.
“Who in Quebec doesn’t understand French?”
He suggested it would be a slippery slope for the French fact if Quebec politicians started sending the message that it’s normal to campaign in English.
That exchange highlighted a political reality that Mr. Charest, and the Liberals, have long had to contend with.
The steady support of Anglo-federalists can sometimes cause political headaches as Liberal rivals pounce on any scent of deference to Ottawa. Mr. Charest has occasionally countered by adopting a more nationalist tone in speeches where he has attacked the federal government.
The premier has also fought back against criticism that his government hasn’t done enough to defend Quebec’s language and culture.
Indeed, the governing Liberals recently expanded the powers of the Office quebecois de la langue francaise, dismaying many anglophones and rekindling unpleasant memories for them of the language wars of the 1970s and ‘80s.
It was during those political and legal battles that Mr. Libman’s Equality party enjoyed some success.
Nearly a quarter-century later, Mr. Libman says, there’s no question of where English-speaking Quebeckers stand in the political hierarchy.
“(Charest’s) not going to cater to us in an election, and we know we’ve been taken for granted,” said Libman, who returned to his architecture practice after a stint in Montreal municipal politics.
“We’ve been cheapened by it and that’s why there’s a sense of resignation, that anglophones don’t feel like voting.”
Quebeckers head to the polls on Sept. 4.
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