The summer solstice heralds the annual juxtaposition of Quebec’s National Holiday and Canada Day, with only a week separating these duelling manifestations of identity politics. It usually isn’t much of a contest as hordes of Quebeckers plaster themselves with the Fleur-de-lis on June 24, while only a smattering of diehard federalists turn out to wave the Maple Leaf on July 1.
Even if this year’s Fête nationale was less ebullient than usual – endless corruption scandals having taken a toll on the provincial ego – Quebeckers remain firmly disengaged from Canadian affairs. What happens west of the Ottawa River is neither a source of interest nor, as it once was, constant irritation. It would seem a bad time to be a Canada-first politician in the province.
And yet, the two most popular political figures in Quebec right now are federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and his provincial counterpart Philippe Couillard. Of course, both are new in their jobs and are benefiting from voter dissatisfaction with those in power. And like Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, who each once soared to the top of the provincial polls only to become casualties of the “Quebec consensus” by election time, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Couillard could yet crash to Earth.
But what makes the current popularity of these two leaders particularly intriguing is that they are both ardent federalists who wear the maple leaf on their sleeves. Mr. Harper captured Quebeckers’ attention with his promise of “open federalism,” while Mr. Ignatieff championed Quebec’s formal recognition as a “nation.” Each played the nationalist card to briefly lead the Quebec polls.
Jean Charest may have been seconded, in 1998, to lead the provincial Liberals on the basis of his reputation as Captain Canada. But he only held power after 2003 by changing capes. He became the “defender of Quebec’s interests” against all things federal, staging a major public battle with Ottawa for more equalization money and pulling the rug from under Mr. Harper with a mid-federal-campaign call for provincial jurisdiction over culture and communications in 2008.
Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Couillard will win Quebec their way, or not at all. These two Liberal leaders may be on a collision course with each other – Mr. Couillard wants Quebec to sign the 1982 Canadian Constitution, while Mr. Trudeau would rather avoid the topic – but both have signalled that the days of pandering to nationalist sentiment are over. Each is confident in his federalist convictions and not shy about saying so.
The challenge for Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Couillard alike will be to consolidate federalist support that has splintered in recent elections. It will be hard for New Democratic Leader Tom Mulcair to continue to reap what his more-loved predecessor Jack Layton sowed. The Quebec NDP is an uneasy coalition of sovereigntist and federalist progressives. Mr. Trudeau wants the federalists back, and Mr. Mulcair seems to be making it easier for him than he imagined. Support for the Conservatives is in rounding-error territory in Quebec, with the 8 percentage points in support the party has lost since 2011 now parked with the Liberals.
Similarly, Mr. Couillard is counting on federalists who’ve flirted with the right-leaning Coalition Avenir Québec to return to the Liberal fold by the next election. “On the question of Quebec’s future, you can’t sit on the fence,” Mr. Couillard recently said of the CAQ’s muddy constitutional stand. “We’ll repeat it with pride: Quebec is our ‘patrie,’ Canada is our country.”
Success is far from assured for either Mr. Trudeau or Mr. Couillard. Mr. Trudeau reminds even some federalist Quebeckers of what they disliked about his often condescending father. His command of French is criticized in the francophone media (though likely goes unnoticed by average voters.) He has made blunders that could come back to haunt him at election time.
Mr. Couillard, a former Liberal health minister, is having to constantly explain his previous relationship with ex-McGill University Health Centre head Arthur Porter, who faces extradition to Canada on fraud charges. And talk of an electoral alliance between the Parti Québécois, Québec Solidaire and Option Nationale – uniting sovereigntists – is heating up.
What’s more, Mr. Couillard and Mr. Trudeau have taken the helms of parties that hit post-Confederation lows in their last elections. But Quebeckers, for now, seem drawn to these unabashed Maple Leaf missionaries.