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Canada Independence not on table at Quebec election as Liberals, Parti Québécois vie for seats

For 48 years, the Liberals or the Parti Québécois have run Quebec, and every election came down to whether the province was ready to pursue independence.

But not in this close-fought campaign. Quebeckers are poised Monday night to choose between the six-year-old Coalition Avenir Québec and the 151-year-old Quebec Liberal Party, with the PQ fighting for its survival as an official party after driving the Quebec independence movement since the 1970s.

The two leaders running out front in polls framed voters' decision in very different ways.

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CAQ Leader François Legault made a final plea to voters to ride “the winds of change” blowing across the province and said he still has a lot to learn as he hit the suburban swing ridings around Montreal likely to decide the election.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader Francois Legault, right, greets a supporter during a campaign stop in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., Sept. 30, 2018.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Philippe Couillard, leader of the governing Liberal Party, gave his own version of the ballot question. He argued the province needs his steady hand and the CAQ Leader’s errors show he is not competent to be premier.

Polls published as recently as Saturday showed the CAQ slightly ahead of the Liberals in popular support, yet a couple of trends add uncertainty. The CAQ holds a big advantage among the French-speaking voters who form the majority in swing ridings, but the Liberals traditionally benefit from voters who decide at the last minute or don’t want to tell pollsters their preference.

With votes split among the three parties and Québec solidaire, a minority government remained the probable outcome, according to most polling and seat-projection experts following the race.

Months before and throughout the 39-day campaign, which saw its first English-language leaders’ debate since 1985 and the first ever to be televised, a large majority of Quebec voters told pollsters they want change from their Liberal government.

Mr. Couillard hopped around eastern Quebec by airplane Sunday, urging Liberal activists to work hard. “The campaign is not over,” he told supporters in Gaspé. “The race is close. It’s not time to start evaluating campaigns. I’m still campaigning.”

Mr. Legault spent most of his final pre-election encounter with reporters reminding voters of their desire for a fresh start. “We have a unique opportunity to change things up here,” he said during a visit to a bakery in a swing riding southwest of Montreal held by the PQ.

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He had a commanding lead in polls three weeks ago when he started trying to explain his plan to cut immigration quotas controlled by the province, and to apply language and values tests to new arrivals and expel those who fail after three years. But Mr. Legault mixed up federal and provincial responsibilities and could not explain how the new system would work.

The CAQ sank below the Liberals in polls before recovering slightly in the past 10 days. Mr. Legault admitted he made a mistake and has much to learn about the details of immigration and how responsibility is split between Ottawa and Quebec.

“I’m not perfect," he said. "I have things to learn about processes in Ottawa. I’ll continue to try to improve.”

Word spread in all four campaigns Sunday about The Globe and Mail report that Canada was set to compromise on dairy supply management to reach a North American free-trade agreement deal with the United States. The leaders of the four main parties have promised they will fight to maintain the status quo in the dairy market.

Mr. Couillard defended his province’s dairy industry. “Whatever agreement is signed, it’s important all Quebeckers rally behind me to defend their interests, and defend supply management for future generations,” he told a crowd of supporters.

Mr. Legault urged everyone to maintain a united front: “It’s not the time for small, partisan politics,” he said.

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PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée was among the leaders taking stock of the campaign. He began the day at the home of his mother, Andrée Goulet, in Thetford Mines, where she had nothing but praise for her son – other than expressing her surprise that he used a French-language debate to attack the fourth-place party, Québec solidaire. The moment marked the start of a slide in polls for the PQ. Mr. Lisée said the visit was symbolic: He began his leadership campaign at his childhood home in 2016.

The PQ has had a long slide in popular support since 1998 – with the sole exception of a narrow minority government win in 2012 – and is now fighting QS to be the pro-independence, left-of-centre voice in Quebec.

Manon Massé, who represents QS on the campaign trail, is targeting her small party’s first wins outside of Montreal. Six seats would double the party’s contingent in the 125-seat National Assembly. “Whatever happens, we shook up the establishment,” she told supporters in Montreal. The three other leaders “agree on one thing: Québec solidaire is a danger to the political class.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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