The federal parties fought to a virtual stalemate in Quebec on Monday, with seat totals in the province poised to remain relatively unchanged after the governing Liberals called a snap election that was widely criticized as unnecessary.
The state of play in Quebec mirrors a largely static electoral landscape following a 36-day campaign that lacked a defining national issue, as the Liberals return with another minority government.
Speaking to a group of subdued supporters in downtown Montreal, Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet described the election as a return of the “status quo.”
“No winners, no losers,” he said. “One wants to say, ‘All that, for that.’”
He added that the parties will now have to work together and put some of their “rancor” behind them to ensure that this Parliament has an “acceptable” lifespan.
In Quebec, although no single party gained a decisive edge, the race was dominated by accusations of “Quebec bashing” and federal overreach that could have implications for national unity for years to come. Quebec’s close-fought election campaign came down to the wire on Monday night after a race that was dominated by accusations of “Quebec bashing” and federal overreach that could have implications for national unity for years to come.
The separatist Bloc Québécois had surged in recent polls after capitalizing on the controversy surrounding a question at the English-language leaders’ debate that few in the province typically watch. When a moderator asked Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet about the province’s “discriminatory” bill that outlaws the wearing of religious symbols by certain public-sector workers and a proposed bill to strengthen the place of French, his indignation mirrored that of many francophones. The question was widely seen as an expression of the rest of Canada’s disdain for Quebec’s approach to immigration and ethnic diversity, which is viewed as less multicultural, and prompted angry denunciations from the Bloc Leader along with pundits and political leaders across the province.
Although all three major national parties called on the broadcasters’ consortium to apologize, it was the Bloc, which has always presented itself as the only true defender of Quebec’s interests, that saw an immediate bump in the polls. Many voters seemed to agree with Mr. Blanchet that the Liberals and Conservatives were being “opportunistic” in denouncing the moderator the day after the debate.
The Liberals found themselves in a battle in Quebec after hoping that favourable polls in the summer would allow them to secure a majority government. But Mr. Trudeau often found himself on the defensive, rather than consolidating his popularity, while struggling with the question of why he called the election in the first place.
His stagnating fortunes in the province were thrown into relief by a testy performance in the first French-language debate on the popular Quebec network TVA, when he repeatedly raised his voice to talk over rival leaders, said André Lamoureux, a course instructor in political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal. “That doesn’t show a mastery of the agenda,” he said.
The Liberals stayed relevant throughout the campaign thanks to relatively progressive policies on issues important to Quebeckers, such as climate change, vaccination and gun control. The enduring, if controversial, star power of the Trudeau name in Quebec also made his party hard to dismiss.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole pitched himself aggressively to Quebec this campaign, emphasizing his party’s traditional defence of provincial autonomy, a popular position in the federation’s most independent-minded province. His promises included billions more in unconditional health funding, additional powers over immigration and a vow not to intervene in court challenges to Bill 21, the religious symbols law. He was rewarded with a tempered endorsement from the popular Premier François Legault, who said Quebeckers should elect a Conservative minority government to check the “dangerous” centralizing overreach of the Liberals and NDP.
But Mr. O’Toole failed to connect with many Quebec voters on the campaign trail, and his party’s support remained around 20 per cent on the eve of the election. He was plagued by questions about his position on the previous Liberal government’s assault-weapon ban after he gave vaguely worded answers on the subject. The Liberals also attacked the Conservatives about a platform commitment to protect the conscience rights of doctors who refuse to provide abortions or medical assistance in dying.
The perception that he is in thrall to social conservatives has hurt Mr. O’Toole in socially progressive Quebec, Prof. Lamoureux said. “With Erin O’Toole there are fundamental divisions with Quebeckers on subjects that are very sensitive here. Abortion, firearms. … There are many people in Quebec who fear the Conservatives.”
The NDP entered the campaign with hopes of adding a handful of seats to the one it currently holds in Quebec, but polls suggested it would be a fight for the party to retain any presence in the province. The Orange Wave of 2011, when the popularity of the late Jack Layton propelled the party to a stunning 59 seats in the province, appears to be more of an anomaly with every passing election. In a province where various parties can typically count on regional strongholds – the Liberals on the island of Montreal, the Conservatives in the Quebec City region – NDP support is spread too thin, said James Kelly, professor of political science at Concordia University.
“One of the challenges the NDP has always faced in this province is that it doesn’t have a natural regional base.”
Before Parliament was dissolved, the Liberals had 35 seats in the province, the Bloc 32, the Conservatives 10, and the NDP 1.
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