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CAQ Leader Francois Legault at the legislature in Quebec City in February 2016.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec voters liberated from the independence debate are casting aside traditional allegiances and throwing support behind a third party that has never held power, a new poll has found.

The Coalition Avenir Québec, a conservative party led by former airline executive François Legault, has surged ahead of the Quebec Liberal Party in voting intentions for the first time since the CAQ was founded in 2011, according to the survey conducted by the Leger research firm for The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir.

With 11 months to go until the next provincial election, both the Liberals under Premier Philippe Couillard and Parti Québécois have sunk to depths of support never seen in elections or polls, said Jean-Marc Léger, president of the research company.

In a survey of 1,008 people, the internet poll has the CAQ sitting at 34 per cent, the Liberals at 29 per cent and the PQ at 20. (A poll of this size is considered to have a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.) The previous Leger poll in August had the Liberals at 32 per cent, the CAQ at 28 per cent and the PQ at 22.

"It's a thunderbolt," Mr. Léger said in an interview. "It's the first time since the 2014 election that the Liberals are behind and it represents a fundamental change. The Liberals have dominated for so long, but it's not just that the CAQ leads, it's that they have a big lead with francophones."

Among francophones who decide Quebec elections in key swing ridings outside Montreal, the result is stark: The CAQ has risen to 37 per cent support, up four points from August at the expense of the PQ, which sits at 24 per cent (down three) and the Liberals at 21 (down one).

"The CAQ is now in territory that would not only allow them to win – they would win a majority," Mr. Léger said.

The Liberals are even losing support among their traditional base of English-speaking and minority voters.

The party sits at 60 per cent, a drop of 9 percentage points since August and 14 percentage points since May.

PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée won the leadership one year ago vowing to put any potential referendum on ice for the first mandate should he win government.

It was a radical step for a PQ leader and the party has dropped steadily in voting intentions since. The ripples have extended beyond the PQ.

"Many sovereigntist voters decided there is no longer any fundamental reason to vote for the PQ. But it's had the same effect on the Liberals. A lot of Liberal voters are loyal election after election just to make sure there's no referendum. Federalists are no longer obliged to vote Liberal," Mr. Léger said. "This hasn't happened since the seventies."

The CAQ and Mr. Legault, a onetime PQ cabinet minister who renounced Quebec independence years ago, advocate a "strong Quebec nation within Canada" in the party's program.

The poll was conducted from Oct. 23 to 25 in the midst of a controversy over Bill 62, a law passed earlier this month that would deny public services to people wearing face coverings that was decried as targeting Muslim women who wear full veils.

The measure to enforce what the government calls "religious neutrality" is extremely popular in Quebec, but appears to have done little to help the Liberals.

"In principle, people think faces should be uncovered, but even if they think the government should act, Quebeckers do not like this kind of quarrel and have trouble reconciling their positions," Mr. Léger said.

In early October, the Liberals lost badly to the CAQ in a by-election in a normally safe seat in Quebec City. Mr. Couillard shuffled his cabinet after the by-election "to no effect, zero," Mr. Léger said.

Justin Trudeau weighs in further on the Quebec law banning people from covering their faces while receiving public services. The prime minister says it is not the role of government to tell women what they can or can’t wear.

The Canadian Press

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