Skip to main content
crunching numbers

Quebeckers celebrate St. Jean Baptiste Day on the Plains of Abraham in 2009.Francis Vachon

While the nine NDP leadership hopefuls have to wait till March before a winner is named, the Bloc Québécois announced Sunday that Daniel Paillé will be taking the reins of the sovereigntist party. His main opponent in the province will be decided after New Democrats cast their ballots and history suggests that his chances will be greatly improved if they opt for a non-Quebecker.

Parties with Quebec-born leaders have won more votes in that province than any other party for the last 14 consecutive federal elections, stretching back to 1968. No party leader born outside of Quebec has ever beaten a native Quebecker leading a major national party since 1891, when John A. Macdonald's Conservatives bettered the Liberals under Wilfrid Laurier, who then went on to win the next six elections in Quebec.

After him, Quebec's crown went to native sons Louis St-Laurent, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Lucien Bouchard, Jean Chrétien, Gilles Duceppe and, most recently, the Montreal-born Jack Layton. Since 1891, Mackenzie King, John Diefenbaker, and Lester Pearson have been the only non-Quebeckers to win the most votes in the province – and in each case their adversaries in the Conservative, Liberal, or New Democratic/CCF parties were born outside the province as well.

Of the current crop of nine NDP leadership contenders, three are from Quebec: Thomas Mulcair, Roméo Saganash, and Brian Topp. Though Mr. Mulcair was born in Ottawa, at the time his family was living in what is now neighbouring Gatineau and he was subsequently raised in Laval. Mr. Topp has a similar history to Mr. Layton, having been born and raised in the Montreal area before leaving the province as an adult. He has stated he intends to return and run in a Quebec riding for election to the House of Commons should he become leader.

After 59 New Democrats were elected from Quebec in May, the province is key to any future NDP bid for government. If the experiences of the Conservatives and the Liberals are any guide, one of these three candidates has the best chance of holding on to that base.

The Conservative Party, and its Progressive Conservative predecessor, has not had many Quebeckers in a leadership role. Only two, Brian Mulroney and Jean Charest, have led the party into an election campaign.

Mr. Mulroney brought the party to new heights in Quebec in 1984 and 1988, taking 50 and 53 per cent of the vote, respectively. Only when Mr. Diefenbaker took 50 per cent of the Quebec vote in 1958 against the Pearson-led Liberals have the Tories ever been so widely supported in the province. Mr. Mulroney eclipsed the performances of his two predecessors, Joe Clark and Robert Stanfield, as well as his successor, Kim Campbell.

The party that Mr. Charest took over was in shambles. But he improved upon Ms. Campbell's performance in 1997, though he was bettered by the Liberals under Mr. Chrétien and the Bloc Québécois under Mr. Duceppe. The return of Joe Clark meant the loss of almost three-quarters of the PC vote in Quebec in 2000, and only once (in 2006) did Stephen Harper improve upon Mr. Charest's result.

Quebec's support for the Liberals has been much more closely tied to whether they have been led by a Quebecker or not. Wilfrid Laurier brought Quebec solidly into the Liberal fold at the turn of the century and the party's best performance in the province, 73 per cent in the 1917 "conscription" election, was under his watch.

MacKenzie King never did better than that mark, but he still took over half of the vote in every election in Quebec except his last, facing off against parties led by non-Quebecers. Louis St-Laurent then brought the Liberals back over the 50 per cent mark in Quebec during his reign, while it dropped back below under Pearson.

Trudeau's five elections between 1968 and 1980 have been the best Liberal performances in Quebec since St-Laurent. He immediately improved the Liberals' fortunes and from 1972 his support grew in every subsequent election until he took 68 per cent of the vote in 1980.

Against Mr. Mulroney, the John Turner-led Liberals then dropped to 35 per cent in 1984 and 30 per cent in 1988 as Quebeckers opted for the native of Baie-Comeau. Mr. Chrétien then improved the Liberal score in Quebec in each election between 1993 and 2000, but against the Bloc Québécois was unable to reach the heights of his predecessors who hailed from the province.

Support fell under the Ontario-born but Quebec-based Paul Martin before it rebounded slightly under Stéphane Dion. It then reached an all-time low under Michael Ignatieff.

For the New Democrats, having a Quebec-born leader in Mr. Layton was a new experience. No leader before him was from the province, and immediately he improved upon the 2 per cent or so that the NDP took under Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough between 1993 and 2000. He brought the party back to its highs under Ed Broadbent in 2006 and 2008 before making the stunning breakthrough in May.

Since 1867, both the Conservative and Liberal vote has grown in Quebec from the previous election every time a Quebecker took over the respective parties. It has also fallen every time a Quebecker was replaced by someone from outside the province. For the Tories, it has been an average gain of over 20 points and an average loss of over 25 points from one election to the next. The Liberals have gained an average of seven points in Quebec when a Quebecker became leader, while they have lost an average of 15 when that leader has been replaced.

Of course, history does not always repeat itself. Most of the NDP leadership candidates who are from outside of Quebec have a decent command of the French language, and certainly have enough time to improve before the 2015 election. But now that the Bloc has a new leader and the next head of the Liberal Party is almost certain to be bilingual, the New Democrats may need to choose between Roméo Saganash, Thomas Mulcair, and Brian Topp in order to have the best shot at keeping the province orange.

Eric Grenier writes about politics and polls at