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Canada For Trudeau, Quebec’s Legault is a new kind of challenge

For a moment, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau probably smiled to see the Parti Québécois laid low – but the Quebec election handed him another potentially tricky problem in the form of François Legault.

The CAQ Leader’s majority triumph represents a third way for the province’s relationship with Ottawa, without the referendum threat of sovereigntists, but with a hefty dose of soft-nationalist, Quebec identity politics. And a lot of those politics clash with Mr. Trudeau’s.

The outgoing premier, Philippe Couillard, rarely flashed anger at Ottawa even in disagreement – at least until election day, when the dairy concessions Ottawa made to seal a new North American trade agreement had him seething.

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Mr. Legault, almost by definition, is going to find more fault with the feds. His party’s brand is putting referendums in the past but still taking a more nationalist, more assertive tone than Mr. Couillard’s Liberals. And now the Coalition Avenir Québec has a mandate.

Opposition to Mr. Trudeau’s dairy concessions in the trade deal will almost certainly fuel Mr. Legault’s first clash with the feds. Any Quebec premier would feel compelled to make that an issue in a province with a powerful dairy lobby – especially after an election campaign that closed with the PQ’s Jean-François Lisée charging Ottawa sacrificed Quebec dairy farmers to save Ontario auto workers.

But there’s plenty of opportunity for more disputes – especially around immigration, and politically potent arguments over Quebec identity.

Mr. Legault swept to a surprisingly strong win on the back of a campaign that raised fears that Quebeckers’ identity could be eroded by large numbers of immigrants who aren’t being integrated, or learning French. When he was forced to admit that a key part of his plan – expelling immigrants who don’t learn French in three years – isn’t within the province’s power, he suggested it will be up to Ottawa to deport them. He promised to send the bills for social services for irregular border-crossers to Ottawa.

That’s not a PQ leader demanding ever more jurisdictions. It is a Quebec leader ready to dump blame on Ottawa.

For a long time, prime ministers have faced two types of Quebec premier: federalists who usually took care their disputes with Ottawa didn’t feed their separatists opponents; and separatists whom Ottawa derided as muckrakers trying to break up the country.

Now, Mr. Trudeau faces something else. Mr. Legault is a pricklier personality than his predecessor. He doesn’t share Mr. Couillard’s deep sentiments for Canada. He’s a former sovereigntist who was recruited into the PQ cabinet of Lucien Bouchard in 1997, but later decided the long drive for sovereignty was outdated. For Mr. Trudeau, dealing with the Quebec Premier is likely to become more complicated.

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For one thing, Mr. Trudeau’s Conservative opponents in Ottawa will be itching to ally themselves with Mr. Legault’s CAQ. Andrew Scheer’s Tories are trailing in Quebec, and they’d be happy to hitch their wagon to a small-c conservative party that just swept up support from Quebec’s francophone voters. It’s not clear the CAQ government will want to be linked to the Tories – but Mr. Legault is likely to have a party in Ottawa willing to amplify some of his message.

The good news for Mr. Trudeau is that Mr. Legault isn’t shaping up as another Doug Ford-style provincial opponent to his federal carbon tax. The CAQ leader has said he will continue Quebec’s greenhouse-gas cap-and-trade system. And generally, Mr. Legault hasn’t really outlined specific demands for Ottawa.

Mr. Trudeau also has one advantage that might make relations with the new premier go more smoothly: money. Mr. Legault, leading a party that has never governed before, will be anxious to show he can deliver things to Quebeckers and cut taxes. Co-operating with the feds, and their big infrastructure budgets, would bring concrete projects. Maybe Mr. Legault doesn’t want fights.

But then, Mr. Legault has come to power on so many un-Trudeau things. He wants a values test for immigrants selected by Quebec. He proposes to bar public servants, including teachers, from wearing religious symbols. That clashes with both the Trudeau père legacy and the Trudeau son’s diversity-is-our-strength politics.

Mr. Trudeau’s re-election hopes, meanwhile, rest on winning the lion’s share of Quebec seats. Until now, he had a fairly uncontested position in his home province: No other federal leader is a Quebecker, and Quebec’s outgoing premier was more or less aligned with him. Now, there’s a new kind of Quebec premier – not a referendum-obsessed separatist, but one who claims a mission to protect Quebec’s identity in ways that clash with Mr. Trudeau. For the PM, that’s a new kind of challenge.

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