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Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault greets a supporter during an election campaign stop in Saint-Jerome, Que., on Sept. 10.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

In Verdun, an old saying went, the Quebec Liberals could run a pig and win. The working-class neighbourhood in southwest Montreal has been a party stronghold for more than 50 years.

But times are changing. Although retired health care worker Vincent Robert always used to vote Liberal, just like his father before him, he says he will probably switch his allegiance to François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec in Monday’s provincial election.

Mr. Robert is like many francophone voters who have abandoned traditional parties – the federalist Liberals and sovereigntist Parti Québécois – while shunning relative newcomers such as the leftist Québec Solidaire and the Conservative Party of Québec.

With a splintered opposition, the decline of the independence question and a popular leader, the CAQ has emerged as the front-runner in this race.

It speaks volumes that the party is competitive in Verdun. Traditionally the island of Montreal, like the province as a whole, was split between Liberal red and PQ blue. Since the CAQ was founded in 2011, the party has barely gained a foothold in the city, with its large immigrant and anglophone populations typically hostile to the party’s conservative nationalism.

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“Now they’re getting closer to the heart of Montreal, which is quite astonishing – which we would never expect,” said Jean-François Daoust, assistant professor at the University of Sherbrooke and co-author of the recently published Le nouvel électeur québécois, a study of voting patterns in Quebec.

Mr. Legault’s election in 2018 broke the old duopoly of Quebec politics, firmly in place since the 1970s, by placing the question of sovereignty on the back-burner. A former PQ cabinet minister himself, the CAQ leader has promised never to hold a referendum on independence. (Although at a recent debate, he declined to say how he would vote if a referendum did take place.)

That has allowed him to woo older francophones on both sides of the so-called national question, with a message of protecting Quebec identity within Canada. Mr. Robert, for example, likes the party’s policies on language such as the controversial Bill 96, which limits the use of English in public life.

Mr. Legault’s party has also benefited from a perception of competence on a range of important files, thanks in part to forceful cabinet members such as Health Minister Christian Dubé and Treasury Board Chair Sonia LeBel.

The government’s management of the pandemic was well-received by the public, Prof. Daoust said, while Mr. Legault himself, whose folksy persona provided reassurance during repeated lockdowns, is “very well-liked.”

The CAQ has not ascended all on their own: They have been helped by the free fall of their primary rivals. The Liberals were tarnished by corruption scandals and long years in power, while the PQ’s focus on making Quebec a country no longer seems relevant to a majority of voters.

The month-long campaign has failed to dislodge these trends, despite a rocky showing by Mr. Legault. He has made a series of inflammatory comments about immigration, including saying it would be “suicidal” for Quebec to welcome more than 50,000 immigrants a year because of their effect on the French language.

With nearly 40 per cent support in most polls, the CAQ still sits more than 20 points clear of their opponents, all four of whom are virtually neck-and-neck for a distant second place in the popular vote.

Mr. Legault’s party continues to find support in unlikely places. In April’s Marie-Victorin by-election, the CAQ stormed a péquiste stronghold on Montreal’s south shore. Despite a widely-praised campaign, there is still a risk that PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon could fail to secure a seat in the National Assembly.

His party is not alone in being hamstrung by the province’s first-past-the-post electoral system. The upstart Conservatives, led by former talk radio host Éric Duhaime, score around 15 per cent in most polls but may fail to win any ridings.

The level of dominance Mr. Legault is expected to achieve, with the backing of just four in 10 Quebeckers, is a sign that the province needs electoral reform, said Patrick Déry, deputy editor of the Montreal-based Policy Options magazine.

Having such a concentration of power is not healthy for democracy, Mr. Déry argued. The opposition parties could be stretched thin with just a handful of deputies, leaving them unable to properly scrutinize government legislation.

“There will be no counterweight,” he said.

Some voters have sensed that risk and are casting their ballots accordingly. In Sherbrooke – the long-time seat of former Liberal premier Jean Charest – the CAQ is in a close two-way race with Québec Solidaire. Lucie Gagnon, a retired teacher, likes Mr. Legault’s nationalist policies and would prefer to have him as Premier.

But she will probably back Québec Solidaire in the end. The CAQ hardly needs her vote, she reasons.

“I think they need to have a bit of an opposition,” she said.