If it’s generally true that all politics is local, in Quebec the maxim is even truer. At times, even during a federal election, every issue can seem to come stamped with a fleur-de-lys. That has never been more clear than during this campaign, when a relatively parochial set of concerns in the province, including a suburban commuter tunnel and a debate moderator’s question, have driven the conversation and the polls.
Between the formidable powers of the provincial government, the population’s close identification with Quebec as a nation and a widespread sense of Ottawa as a somewhat remote power centre, federal politics often feel secondary to Quebeckers, even when their ballots are the main prize in a federal contest.
The voters who approach Bloc Québécois candidate Simon Marchand in the street – with his bright red hair, he’s easy to spot – rarely want to discuss the election issues that animate national news cycles. The residents of Hochelaga, a working-class riding in east-end Montreal, have concerns that are closer to home: their public-housing waiting list, a proposed shipping container yard, even graffiti.
“I think there’s really a culture difference in how we perceive federal politics,” he said. That is, Quebeckers perceive it as being about Quebec.
The 35-year-old is running for a seat that has swung from the Bloc to the NDP to the Liberals in the past decade, and which could play a real role in tilting an election where Quebec is once again a battleground. But if Hochelaga holds the fate of a nation in its hands, it doesn’t seem to know it.
The riding illustrates an enduring irony of Canadian democracy: elections are often won and lost in a province where many voters think the proceedings essentially concern another country. As Mr. Marchand sees it, if he wins, “I’ll be going to be a foreign parliament.“
Many of his supporters implicitly agree. Wearing a Montreal Canadiens sweater outside the smoked meat restaurant Gerry’s, Manon Thomas, a likely Bloc voter, said her ballot-box issues were the health of her neighbours on nearby Avenue Bourbonnière and the poverty that plagues the area. The fate of Canada writ large, ostensibly the point of a federal election, didn’t interest her.
“I don’t know Canada,” she said. “Montreal, I know. Hochelaga, I know.”
This summer, not for the first time, Quebec witnessed a parallel campaign, featuring a suite of themes and personalities that would be obscure to most Canadians. Often, the top election stories were about local issues, such as the fate of a proposed commuter artery in the provincial capital. Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet spent several days in August explaining himself after expressing personal support for a project that would connect local drivers by tunnel to the south shore of the St. Lawrence, despite his party’s officially neutral stand. (The “third link” tunnel plan is popular in Quebec City’s contested suburbs but seen as environmentally harmful by many others in the province.)
Among the other issues that have flared up almost exclusively in Quebec this election are a case of book-burning by a French-language school board in Ontario – it was trying to purge works offensive to Indigenous people – and the inability of the new Governor-General, Mary Simon, to speak French.
Meanwhile, the biggest inflection point in Quebec’s horse race was overwhelmingly provincial in nature. When an English debate moderator asked Mr. Blanchet about the province’s “discriminatory” bills to strengthen the place of French and bar some public-sector workers from wearing visible religious symbols, the perceived attack on Quebec society became a cause célèbre that gave the Bloc a boost in the polls.
“In Quebec, we’re not on the same wavelength,” said Guy Lachapelle, a professor of political science at Concordia University.
That is, on the one hand, literally true: Quebec’s francophone media ecosystem exists in deep isolation from English Canada, led by the powerful broadcast and print empire of Quebecor, which has a strong nationalist bent and “likes to stir the pot about identity issues,” said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. The company’s flagship TV channel and newspaper, TVA and Le Journal de Montréal, ran with the debate-question story for days.
Even many ordinary bread-and-butter policy issues are seen through the lens of Quebec identity in the province. During this campaign, gun control in Quebec has commonly been connected to the collective trauma of mass shootings in the province, such as those at École Polytechnique in 1989 and a Quebec City mosque in 2017, while child care policy has often been understood in terms of the province’s pride in its pioneering affordable daycare program.
“There is no strict separation between bread-and-butter issues and identity issues,” Prof. Béland said.
Quebeckers observe a far stricter separation between the federal and provincial levels of government, however, and generally accord more prestige and importance to what goes on in Quebec City. The government in Ottawa is often seen as playing second fiddle, even in the minds of some federal politicians on the campaign trail. During the second French-language debate last week, while arguing with Justin Trudeau about who speaks for Quebeckers, Mr. Blanchet said simply, “Quebec democracy is expressed in the National Assembly of Quebec.” (The very next day, as if to prove his point, the wildly popular premier François Legault shook up the federal election by calling on Quebec voters to back a Conservative minority.)
The mere existence of the Bloc is another reason federal elections are more narrowly focused on local issues in Quebec, said Karl Bélanger, president of Traxxion Stratégies and press secretary to the late Jack Layton during the NDP’s Orange Wave 10 years ago. No other province has a major party whose reason for existing is to draw attention to its home turf.
But every other party also has a pitch heavily tailored to Quebec, Mr. Bélanger noted; the NDP even adds a fleur-de-lys to its logo in the province.
“Parochial is a good word to describe the electoral narrative in Quebec,” he said.
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