In this hockey-mad city, where fans paint themselves blue and form their own self-proclaimed "nation," voters are weighing whether Stephen Harper's Conservatives deserve a trip to the penalty box.
The riding of Beauport-Limoilou, along with a cluster of seats in the Quebec City region, form the core of Conservative support in Quebec. And hockey has emerged as a possible spoiler for the Tories, who desperately need the region in their pursuit of a majority government.
"They say hockey here is a religion," said Réjean Lemoine, a historian who lives in the Beauport-Limoilou riding. "But really, it's a matter of life and death."
On this topic, Mr. Harper announced last month his government wouldn't fund a new NHL-calibre hockey arena for the city - an arena that's the centrepiece for the city's near obsessive crusade to bring back its beloved Quebec Nordiques.
Since then, the PM's " non" has ricocheted along the café-lined streets, historic byways and suburban housing tracts of Beauport-Limoilou, a seat won by Conservative MP Sylvie Boucher by only 2,032 votes in the last race.
In a place that's home to the Nordiques Nation, where more than 50,000 boosters march on the Plains of Abraham in a sea of hockey-jersey blue, did Mr. Harper do the equivalent of firing into his own net? Or is his fiscally cautious message a winner among the suburban voters who form the backbone of Tory support in the battleground riding?
The answer lies with the hockey moms and dads who gathered at the Marcel Bédard community arena one evening this month to cheer on their bantam-aged kids playing for a hockey championship. Many of these young, middle-class parents are the voters who gave the Tories their party's breakthrough in Quebec in 2006.
Nowadays, few forget that eight Quebec Conservative MPs from the region donned Nordiques sweaters last September to suggest they were onside for federal arena cash.
"It was all a pack of lies, so they could look good," said Charles Vigneault, a 39-year-old small-business owner who voted Tory the last time around. "It left me with a bitter taste. Really, I'm undecided about how I'll vote this time."
Others were ready to forgive, viewing the Tories as their only federalist option. "I don't see an alternative," said Marie-Claude Lapointe, a 38-year-old mother of two who runs a hairdressing salon. "And I find that Harper looks like a guy who manages things well. As a business owner, that matters to me."
The Quebec City area tends to march to its own drumbeat at the ballot box. In 2006, Tory victories in the region at the expense of the Bloc gave the party its surprise 10-seat foothold in Quebec. The party failed to make hoped-for gains in 2008, but held onto its seats and picked up one in a by-election.
The Conservatives' success in what's considered the least conservative province in Canada became known as the Quebec City enigma.
In fact, it's not that mysterious. The provincial capital, which tends to be resentful toward big-city Montreal, has favoured right-of-centre parties in the past. Overwhelmingly francophone, voters also backed the status-quo No side in the 1995 referendum more than francophones elsewhere. And the city's conservative, populist talk radio holds sway among legions of devotees.
Along the subdivisions in the Beauport section of the riding, where vegetable farms have given way to big-box stores and single-family homes, the Tories' small-government, law-and-order message seems to have found fruitful ground.
The Tories have tried to plant another message, relentlessly promoted on campaign posters and repeated by Mr. Harper in the French-language leaders' debate: Voting Conservative puts your region in power.
"I like the Conservative Party's values," said Marlène Déry, who works in an insurance office, as she headed with her three young children into the municipal library, located near a Boston Pizza outlet in one of the riding's sprawling shopping malls. "And if the Conservatives win, we'd be on the side of the party in power."
The Bloc Québécois has its sights set on taking the riding back after placing a close second to the Tories in the last two races. Its strongest base is in the Limoilou part of the riding, a traditional blue-collar neighbourhood where Wi-Fi coffee bars and gourmet chocolate shops along 3e Avenue signal the influx of young professionals.
Limoilou is home to both the existing Colisée hockey arena and the new version - incarnated as a $400-million multipurpose amphitheatre - that would rise nearby. Though tourist sites such as the Château Frontenac are visible in the distance in Upper Town's Old Quebec, the Colisée is a Lower Town landmark in its own right.
The Conservatives may try to portray a vote for the Bloc as a wasted ballot for a party in eternal opposition; for supporters, the Bloc represents an obstacle to a Tory majority they don't want.
"I don't trust Stephen Harper. I find he's twofaced," said Véronique Murray, a 35-year-old nurse, as she walked with her preschooler on a street lined with brick triplexes. "I don't want to wake up to find the country is even more under the influence of the Conservatives. We need our voices to be heard in Quebec."
While some say the arena-funding controversy has started to fade, the Bloc has been busy keeping it alive and touting it as evidence the Tories haven't delivered goodies to the riding. Last week, the Bloc began distributing postcards with a cartoon mocking the Tory hockey-jersey gaffe.
The financing issue "was just the icing on the cake," said Michel Létourneau, a concert and festival promoter and the Bloc's candidate in the riding. "It crystallized the sense of dissatisfaction toward the Conservatives. The presence of Conservative MPs hasn't been significant since they've been in the power."
Ms. Boucher, a two-term MP and parliamentary secretary on the Status of Women, appears to be extending the same low-profile campaign she led in 2008, when her appearances were so scarce her Bloc opponent suggested putting Ms. Boucher's face on the side of a milk carton. Her campaign declined several requests from The Globe and Mail for an interview, saying she was too busy.
Meanwhile, both the Liberals and NDP saw their share of the popular vote grow in the last election, and NDP Leader Jack Layton was campaigning in Quebec City on Monday as polls ranked his party as the most popular in the province after the Bloc. A surge in support for either New Democrat Raymond Côté or Liberal Lorraine Chartier makes for an unpredictable outcome on May 2.
With less than two weeks to go before the vote, will Quebec City prove to be the province's enigma again, or will the mystique dissipate amid anger over arena funding? Without a team in the NHL, some local residents are backing the Montreal Canadiens in the current playoff season. Hockey fans, like voters, can be a fickle bunch.
Beauport-Limoilou: Riding by the numbers
72 per cent
The percentage of people in the riding 25 years old or older at the time of the 2006 census. That's a demographic old enough to remember seeing the Quebec Nordiques play in their neighbourhood before the team relocated to Colorado in 1995.
The cost of a new arena that could support an NHL team. Though the province has committed $200-million, Stephen Harper has announced that a Conservative government would not contribute.
95 per cent
The percentage of people in the riding who call French their mother tongue. Seventy-two per cent speak French only. This is much higher than the proportion in Montreal, where only 65 per cent call French their mother tongue.
The median age of the riding, making it older than the national median of 39.5.
38 per cent
The percentage of people who moved into the riding from another address within the province, higher than the national average of 22 per cent. This, combined with the fact that Beauport-Limoilou is in the top 10 in the percentage of adults who have never legally married, is proof of an influx of single young professionals.
52 per cent
The percentage of people aged 24 to 35 who have a university or college diploma. That compares to 33 per cent of those between 35 and 64, which is lower than the national average of 40 per cent. The unemployment rate has also improved dramatically, from 8.9 in 2001 to a below-national-average 5.3 in 2006.
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