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For the first time in decades, Quebeckers get decisions at the polls other than a yes-or-no reckoning about remaining in Canada. That’s divided and disoriented people in ways no one can predict. What will they do on Oct. 1?

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On Montreal's Park Avenue, campaign posters advertise François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec the smaller Quebec Conservative Party. Quebeckers go to the polls on Monday.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

Beside a bustling four-lane highway, 18-wheelers whizzing noisily by, Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault is holding a press conference with two of his star suburban-Montreal candidates. A CAQ government, Mr. Legault announces, would widen the thoroughfare to six lanes within its first mandate.

Surrounded by big-box stores and cookie-cutter subdivisions, Mr. Legault vows to reduce congestion and blames the long-governing Liberals for ignoring the priorities of suburban families for too long. “We need to act fast, and that’s what a CAQ government will do,” he declares, making no mention of climate change, greenhouse gases or urban sprawl.

It’s not for nothing, after all, that the CAQ’s election slogan is simply: “Now.”

Explainer: Quebec’s election is coming up on Oct. 1. Read this first

Mr. Legault’s speech is one that any right-leaning politician, campaigning anywhere in Canada, might deliver. What makes it somewhat exceptional is that it is occurring in a riding long held by the separatist Parti Québécois. PQ founder René Lévesque, the patron saint of Quebec sovereigntists, once represented the area in the National Assembly and, as recently as 2014, separatist candidates handily won this riding and those around it.

Now, they all look poised to fall to the CAQ, whose plain-spoken leader is an ex-sovereigntist who promises to never, ever hold a referendum on sovereignty. Instead, he wants to whip Quebec into fighting economic form, make its government more efficient and eventually wean the province off equalization payments.

An accountant by training, Mr. Legault, 61, is not known for his charisma. His main appeal is as a former businessman who made it rich by 40 and who cites common sense as his governing principle. He might become Quebec’s next premier, but not out of voter infatuation with him or his party.

It’s a big shift from the days when Quebec election campaigns unfolded in poetry. When the dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective) of a new country elicited impassioned monologues from sovereigntist firebrands and heartfelt pleas for Canadian unity from federalists. When where you stood on separation alone determined which party you voted for, regardless of your views on other issues.

For the first time in four decades, Quebec voters will go to the polls on Monday in an election that does not revolve in some way around the divisive, heart-wrenching, family splitting, all-or-nothing question of severing the province from the rest of Canada. If that’s been liberating in certain ways – freeing Quebeckers to consider their options as few could or would until now – it’s also been disorienting.

Without the national question as their guiding compass, Quebeckers are, politically speaking, all over the map. Those four decades of sovereignty politics may have been exhausting. And they may have diverted attention from other worthy issues. But they had the virtue of sorting voters into neat Yes or No piles. Now, without that central division anchoring party allegiances, Quebeckers are splintering into factions in ways that have made the province’s politics chaotic, confusing and highly unpredictable.

“The cement no longer holds,” explains Laval University political science professor Éric Montigny, who has coined a term – le grand éclatement, or the great shattering – for this new era. “The decline of the Yes-No cleavage has led to the emergence of several new planes along which politics is being waged.”

This new politics is largely the result of a rejection of the “old” parties by francophone Quebeckers between the ages of 35 and the mid-50s. These Generation Xers came of age in the shadows of two failed referendums. Less idealistic than the baby boomers who propelled the independence movement forward, they form the CAQ’s main constituency. “There is going to be a series of elections in which Generation Xers are dominant,” Prof. Montigny says. “And the down-to-earth positioning of the CAQ appeals to them.”

As proof, Prof. Montigny cites a CROP survey conducted in 2016 for Laval’s Research Chair in Democracy and Parliamentary Institutions that asked Quebeckers to choose from a list of adjectives to describe their society now, compared with 40 years ago. The Quebec of 1976, the year the PQ first won power, was described as ambitious and daring. The Quebec of 2016 was characterized mostly as fragmented and outdated. Gen Xers stood out most for their negative views of modern Quebec.

Similarly, a Leger Marketing poll done in late 2017 for L’actualité magazine found that Generation Xers were markedly more likely than those belonging to other age groups to agree with the statement: “Quebec is doing badly and big changes are needed.” Fully 79 per cent of 35-54-year-olds agreed, compared with 61 per cent of Quebeckers under 35, and 66 per cent of those over 55.

“Objectively speaking, Quebec is not doing so badly,” Leger analyst Christian Bourque told L’actualité. “But there is a deep impression that taxpayers are not receiving services that meet their expectations.”

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A woman shelters herself from the rain on Montreal's René Lévesque Boulevard next to a poster of Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard. The Liberals have governed Quebec for 13 of the past 15 years.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

The sentiment of a government in over its head – struggling to fill literal and figurative potholes alike – is driving deep disaffection for the old political parties.

To outsiders, Quebec today may seem to represent a good news story. Its economy is growing at a decent clip and the chronic unemployment of previous decades has given way to near full employment.

Philippe Couillard’s government has balanced the books, although critics contend it did so with all the surgical precision of a chainsaw. In some ways, it had little choice. Quebec’s debt as a percentage of gross domestic product exceeded 54 per cent when Mr. Couillard came to power in 2014. There was a palpable sense in business circles that the province was headed for a debt wall. With the debt-to-GDP ratio now expected to fall to 49 per cent by the end of the current fiscal year, and 45 per cent by 2025, there is less worry of that.

But the recent economic uptick belies a deeper sense that Quebec has fallen behind the rest of the continent in recent decades and that it will take a lot more than a couple of good years for it to catch up. The province’s health-care system is bursting at the seams. Burnout among nurses is rampant. The abhorrent living conditions of seniors in long-term care facilities has become a source of collective shame. Parents decry the decrepit state of their kids’ schools. Some of the province’s major thoroughfares look like a scene from Bladerunner.

This, more than anything, explains why the Liberals, who’ve governed for 13 of the past 15 years, are in trouble. It is also why debating the national question is a seen as a costly distraction, even by many sovereigntists. It is one of the main reasons the Parti Québécois has not cracked the 40-per-cent level in popular support since 1998. In this election, it will be lucky to hit 20 per cent.

In a bid to win back some defectors, PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée promised a PQ government would not hold a referendum until at least 2022. It hasn’t worked. The PQ has been treading water in this campaign.

Among francophone voters, the federalist Quebec Liberal Party is faring even worse than the PQ. Most polls show its support among French-speaking voters at below 20 per cent. If the Liberals eke out a minority victory on Monday, it will only be because of their overwhelming dominance among non-francophone voters, who still feel uncomfortable entrusting the protection of minority rights to the PQ or CAQ. Among francophones, who make up more than 80 per cent of the electorate, the Liberals could wind up in third or even fourth place.

Most of the PQ and Liberal deserters have moved to Mr. Legault’s six-year-old CAQ. The party defines itself as a “modern nationalist party, whose first objective is to assure the development and prosperity of the Quebec nation within Canada, all while proudly defending its autonomy, language, values and culture.”

That latter clause helps explain the CAQ’s plan to cut immigration levels. It insists its plan will ensure Quebec retains and integrates its immigrants instead of losing them to other provinces. But non-francophone voters remain suspicious of the CAQ’s motives, and have refused to jump on the party bandwagon.

A fourth contender, the far-left Québec solidaire, is now running neck and neck with the Liberals among francophone voters. According to its official party program, it would nationalize the banking and natural-resource industries, make university and public transit free and ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2030. Like the PQ, Québec solidaire favours sovereignty (though neither party plays it up now).

The PQ and Québec solidaire are locked in a vicious war for progressive voters that QS appears to be winning. Polls show QS’s support surging among young Quebeckers, who have been repelled by the PQ’s reflexive nationalism. If enough young people turn out to vote, Québec solidaire could wipe the PQ off the political map in Montreal. Mr. Lisée himself is threatened by the QS candidate in his own riding.

If this all makes the new Quebec politics sound messy, it’s because it is. Party loyalties have melted like snow in April and voters seem to be crisscrossing the ideological spectrum with astonishing alacrity. Quebeckers have demonstrated this kind of political dexterity before, notably in 2011, when the federal New Democrats made an unlikely breakthrough only to see their support collapse in 2015.

But if this campaign is any indicator, le grand éclatement has opened divisions within Quebec society that could be hard to bridge. While an end of the binary debate over the national question might be a healthy development for Quebec democracy, it could also usher in a new era of volatile politics that makes it harder to build sustainable governing coalitions. All that seems certain is that, no matter which party comes out on top on Monday night, Quebeckers will likely wake up on Tuesday to find their society more divided than even before the vote.

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On Montreal's René Lévesque Boulevard, a sign promotes Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée and his deputy, Véronique Hivon. The PQ has struggled in this campaign, despite a pledge not to hold a referendum on sovereignty until at least 2022.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

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Québec solidaire is a far-left party with two spokespeople, Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, shown here in a sign on Montreal's Van Horne Avenue. It appears to be winning the competition for Quebec's left-wing and sovereigntist vote, at the PQ's expense.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

In shirtsleeves, huddled at the back of his campaign bus after his press conference, Mr. Legault reflects on this moment in Quebec, the one that has brought him the closest yet to becoming premier. Under his leadership, the CAQ twice before started strong only to finish the 2012 and 2014 campaigns in third place. This time, it looks certain to finish first or second. Mr. Legault is a bit surprised it took so long.

“From the 1970s until now, every Quebec election had the same ballot question,” Mr. Legault explains. “For the first time, we have an election that isn’t about sovereignty. That’s a good thing, because the real preoccupations of Quebeckers revolve around education, the economy and health care.”

Mr. Legault has yet to dispel doubts among many voters, especially non-francophones, that he is no longer a sovereigntist himself. He was, after all, a cabinet minister under former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard. As the PQ’s finance critic in 2005, he produced a hypothetical budget for a sovereign Quebec.

“I’ll admit that it’s been difficult to persuade anglophones and allophones [to vote for the CAQ] because of my sovereigntist past,” he concedes. “It might take another election in order for them to realize that the CAQ’s project [involves working] within Canada, even if its leader is a former sovereigntist.”

Indeed, Mr. Legault’s own trajectory from committed sovereigntist to reluctant federalist parallels that of plenty of Quebeckers. He quit politics, and the PQ, in 2009 after coming to the conclusion that the sovereigntist debate had sucked up too much energy, obscuring deeper challenges facing Quebec – not the least of which include sluggish population and productivity growth and a colossal public debt.

Mr. Legault spent two years recruiting like-minded Quebeckers who had become disillusioned with the unproductive politics of the national question, officially launching the CAQ in late 2011. The CAQ soon after merged with the centre-right Action Démocratique du Québec, which after a brief day in the sun under former leader Mario Dumont, had sunk to four seats in Quebec’s 125-seat National Assembly.

“We really are a coalition,” Mr. Legault says of the CAQ. “We’re a group of pragmatic people who think Quebec can do better on those three priorities of education, the economy and health care.”

He does not mention immigration, though the CAQ’s promise to cut the number of immigrants the province accepts annually by 20 per cent has captured more attention than any other issue during this campaign. It’s proof that, although the debate over sovereignty has faded, Quebec nationalism has not. Protecting their identity remains a priority for francophone Quebeckers, who have long conceived of themselves as a minority in North America. What’s shifting is the form their nationalism takes.

Mr. Legault blew a solid lead in the polls after he flubbed reporters’ questions about the mechanics of his immigration plan, showing a less-than-masterful grasp of his own policies. The incident raised questions among some voters about whether he has the mental chops to be premier. But his promise to reduce immigration is broadly popular, as is the CAQ plan to force newcomers to pass separate French language and values tests.

The immigration debate has eclipsed at times the broader forces at work in this campaign. Many voters remain angry at the Liberals and PQ. They blame both parties for exploiting the sovereignty debate for their own purposes. Indeed, Mr. Couillard won the 2014 election largely by warning voters that a victory by the PQ, which had recruited businessman Pierre Karl Péladeau to run, would lead to another referendum. Voters decided he was probably right.

In many ways, that election sealed the sovereignty movement’s fate.

Mr. Péladeau, the scion of the Quebecor media empire, infamously began the campaign by pumping his fist in the air and chanting “un pays!” Then-PQ premier Pauline Marois had been purposely vague about whether a re-elected PQ government would hold a referendum on sovereignty within its term. Mr. Péladeau’s defiant gesture made it look like all but a certainty.

After all, PQ strategists had seen the demographic writing on the wall and come to the conclusion that winning a sovereignty referendum would only get harder in the future. Young Québécois weren’t interested in independence, hard-line indépendantistes of Mr. Lévesque’s generation were dying off and the PQ had further alienated new Quebeckers with its proposed charter of Quebec values, which would have banned conspicuous religious symbols in the public sector. Many Péquiste diehards were pushing for a last kick at the can before it was too late.

This proved to be excellent news for Mr. Couillard’s Liberals and a disaster for the CAQ. The prospect of a third referendum sent voters scurrying to the Liberals. “Over the past four years, a lot of people have told me they would have voted for me in 2014, but that they voted Liberal because they wanted to be certain to avoid a referendum,” Mr. Legault says.

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Normande Guimond, 71, Tania Longpré, 34, and Richard Bélisle, 72, left the péquiste fold over the years after becoming disillusioned with the sovereigntist party.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

The PQ’s decline stems not only from its failure to attract enough new recruits to the sovereigntist fold to replace those who have died off. The party has seen many long-time supporters slam the door out of fatigue with “the project” and a desire to move on.

Normande Guimond and Richard Bélisle both joined the sovereignty movement as students in the late 1960s. Both supported the PQ for more than three decades, despite having vastly opposing views on most other issues. The quest for sovereignty was the common cause that bound Péquistes together. But right-and left-wing factions within the party fought endlessly over budgetary and social issues. As the prospect of sovereignty became more distant, it became harder to hold those factions together.

Both Ms. Guimond and Mr. Bélisle eventually quit the PQ. Mr. Bélisle, who served as a Bloc Québécois MP in Ottawa between 1993 and 1997, left first. He last voted PQ in 2003. He briefly joined, and ran for, the provincial Liberals in 2008. But he found his new political home in the CAQ upon its creation in 2011.

“We lost two referendums. I decided that was enough for me,” says Mr. Bélisle, a 72-year-old retired public servant who leans to the right. (He quit the Bloc after its leader Gilles Duceppe, a former union official, titled the party to the left.) “I felt more at ease with the CAQ than the Liberals because I’m still a nationalist. Mr. Legault’s past resembles mine and he is sensitive to protecting our language and identity.”

For her part, Ms. Guimond, 71, grew disillusioned with the PQ shortly after it won a short-lived minority government in 2012. The PQ, under then-leader Ms. Marois, campaigned on an ambitious environmental platform. But, in power, it pumped millions in public money into a cement factory in the Gaspé peninsula that has become Quebec’s biggest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions and authorized oil and gas exploration on Anticosti Island. For Ms. Guimond, it was a deal-breaker.

“I ripped up my PQ membership card when Pauline Marois came to power because she governed Quebec just like the Liberals,” explains Ms. Guimond, a retired school psychologist who still considers herself a sovereigntist, but now supports Québec solidaire. “I was too wounded by the PQ to ever return.”

Almost four decades younger than Ms. Guimond and Mr. Bélisle, Tania Longpré, 34, represents another generation of Péquistes who left the party after coming to the conclusion that the sovereignty dream was over. “I came to believe less and less that the project I had caressed to make Quebec a country was ever going to see the light of day,” she explains. “There was no point staying with the PQ.”

Québec solidaire held no appeal for her, she says, “because I’ve never considered myself as being particularly left wing.” Her job at a suburban Montreal school board as a co-ordinator of French courses for adult immigrants drew her to the CAQ, which has promised to devote more resources to integrating newcomers. “As someone who works to integrate immigrants, I feel we can do better.”

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A CAQ sign on Park Avenue. The Liberals have come out swinging against the CAQ's plan to cut immigration levels and impose a values test on newcomers.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

Like the previous PQ government’s charter of Quebec values, the CAQ’s immigration platform has been highly contentious. For many Quebeckers, it smacks of political opportunism and feeds off the insecurity some Quebeckers feel about their cultural survival. Economists have also argued that the plan would exacerbate a growing labour shortage in the province.

For others, however, the CAQ plan to cut immigration levels by 20 per cent and impose a values test on newcomers would help ease concerns among francophone Quebeckers about immigration rather than, as Mr. Couillard has suggested, “blow on the embers of intolerance.”

Indeed, no Quebec government can ignore francophone Quebeckers' deep-seated desire to protect their identity. Even the government of Mr. Couillard, a neurologist who spent several years working in Saudi Arabia, bowed to Quebeckers’ unease with immigration by passing a law to ban face-coverings in the reception or dispensing of public services. The new law has been suspended pending a constitutional challenge.

Mr. Legault is no anti-immigration crusader. He likens the CAQ’s values test to the citizenship exam permanent residents must pass in order to obtain a Canadian passport. Where he has stumbled is in explaining how his plan would work, suggesting early in the campaign that those who fail mandatory French and values tests would be expelled (only the federal government has deportation authority) only to dial back that comment later.

Under a decades-old deal with Ottawa, Quebec selects its own economic immigrants, while the federal government remains responsible for newcomers who arrive in the province as refugees or under Ottawa’s family reunification program. Mr. Legault wants Ottawa to cede control to Quebec over family reunification but he’s vague about when or how he plans to go about it.

“If a large majority of Quebeckers agree with [the CAQ’s demands], I don’t see how any federal government could refuse,” he insists. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “was elected with a lot of Quebec MPs. If he wants to continue to have a lot of Quebec MPs, he needs to listen to Quebeckers.”

Mr. Legault rejects the idea, long championed by Quebec federalists and sovereigntists alike, that the province needs to “hold a knife to the throat” of the federal government in order for its demands to be taken seriously. He insists that “good faith” on his part will work much better.

Pressed about his federalist conversion, he offers no declaration of love for the Rockies. “I’ve reconciled with Canada,” he says curtly. “I think francophones have achieved a space for freedom within Canada.”

He also sees untapped economic potential for Quebec in more aggressively pursuing business deals with other provinces and working mutually to improve the country’s competitiveness.

“Quebec and Canada have common economic challenges,” he notes. “Our companies are less productive than their American competitors and it’s very worrying. So, I’m looking forward to working with the rest of Canada on common economic development projects. I’m a businessman, after all.”

He’s got a ready example in mind: “If Quebec were to build a new hydroelectric project and transmission lines, we could offer Ontario clean energy at a lower cost than the $20-billion it is spending to refurbish its nuclear generating stations. That would be a nice opportunity to contribute to Canada’s success.”

If Mr. Legault wins on Monday, he may indeed find it easier to work with Ottawa and other provinces than the opposition parties in the National Assembly. Sovereignty may not be on the agenda. But the next legislature promises to be highly polarized. MNAs from non-francophone ridings will dominate the Liberal caucus. The PQ and Québec solidaire will work to thwart the CAQ’s small-government agenda.

It could be a while before the dust from le grand éclatement finally settles.

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