Skip to main content

Emilie Nicolas is a columnist, media commentator and host of the Détours podcast.

Montreal is an island. This is a geographical fact, but now more than ever, it is also a social and political reality. Montreal is an island of red and orange, floating in an endless ocean of blue. Or so it appears, if you looked at the electoral map of Quebec the morning after the last provincial campaign.

Urban and rural voting habits tend to differ across the country – not just in Quebec. But a new phenomenon is at play here. Not so long ago, when the Liberals and the Parti Québécois were the dominant forces in Quebec politics, neither could find a pathway to a majority without a decent representation in the metropolis.

Even Maurice Duplessis, who ruled over Quebec with an iron fist during the 1940s and 50s, used to hold more ridings in Montreal than Premier François Legault now has. This is saying a lot, given that there were fewer ridings in the city, and fewer ridings overall back then.

Last Monday night, it felt accurate to speak of a tale of two Quebecs. The differences between Montreal and the “régions” have always existed, as have those between young people and their elders, French Canadians and Quebeckers of other origins. But the divisions seem to have been exacerbated by the province’s recent political debates. There is now Mr. Legault’s Quebec, and the Quebec of those who struggle to see themselves represented in his Coalition Avenir Québec party’s nationalism. Big city dwellers, immigrants and their families, anglophones and young people more generally are struggling to find their place under Mr. Legault’s leadership.

In 2018, Mr. Legault’s CAQ managed to form a majority government with only two members of the National Assembly on the island, both minor players in his caucus. The Premier, who is, interestingly enough, originally a Montrealer himself, knows he doesn’t need Montreal to govern. And it shows.

At the beginning of this first mandate, Mr. Legault put forward Bill 21. The ban on religious symbols for judges, police officers and teachers panders to Quebeckers who hardly, if ever, come in daily contact with religious diversity – while only bearing real, negative consequences for those who do. If this tension between small town and urban Quebec wasn’t already obvious, Mr. Legault stressed it after the adoption of the law. “In Quebec, this is how we live,” he felt necessary to say. To whom, one might ask, if not predominately Montrealers?

In the first year of his mandate, Quebec’s Minister of Immigration also attempted to cancel 18,000 permanent residency applications, mostly coming from newcomers who were already living in the province. The government was forced to backtrack after an intervention by the courts, but many of the applicants caught in this political storm still had to start their permanent residency process all over again, and wait years to get approved. The immigration file, once again, disproportionally affects Montreal.

During the pandemic, Mr. Legault imposed a curfew that disproportionally affected families crammed in small, urban apartments deprived of backyards. The consequences of his policy on the most vulnerable in Montreal did not move him. We learned, after the worst of the crisis was over, that Montreal’s public-health authority had had a difficult relationship with the province on a number of issues. No one was surprised.

And this year’s debate around the adoption of Bill 96, which strengthens the province’s language legislation, also implicitly frames Montreal as a problem. There’s hardly anyone in Quebec who doesn’t understand the vulnerability of French in North America. Yet not all Quebeckers agree on the best means to ensure French continues to thrive.

Those who are in daily contact with linguistic diversity – predominantly Montrealers, once again – are concerned with the sections of Bill 96 that could hinder the human rights of Quebec’s linguistic minorities. For some CAQ supporters, however, opposing parts of Bill 96 is to oppose Quebec, period. The exclusive discourse has made many in the Montreal region feel more isolated and rejected than ever.

In this context, it is not surprising that on Monday night, Mr. Legault’s CAQ made inroads everywhere, except Montreal. During the campaign, some of the Premier’s comments on immigration generated a lot of commentary – and frankly, outrage.

The day after he linked immigration to violent extremism during a press conference, Mr. Legault apologized.

After his Minister for Immigration, Jean Boulet, falsely claimed 80 per cent of immigrants don’t speak French and don’t work, Mr. Legault apologized again.

When addressing the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, the Premier argued that welcoming more than 50,000 immigrants to Quebec a year would be “suicidal.” And during the last weekend of the Quebec campaign, Mr. Legault told journalists, who were asking him about the critiques he had received for his comments, that he would not apologize for defending French and “Quebec values.”

Then on the night of the election, he insisted in his victory speech that he will be the Premier of “all Quebeckers,” including those of “all regions,” and “all origins.”

Confused? You are not alone. Will those who have been deeply wounded by his campaign declarations accept this week’s olive branch? It would have been more likely if Monday’s victory speech had not been preceded by his track record of the past four years.

What’s next for that “other Quebec” – the one that doesn’t see its values represented in some of the CAQ’s nationalism, essentially urban Quebec, diverse Quebec and younger Quebec?

On Tuesday morning, many blamed the first-past-the-post electoral system for the lack of representation at the National Assembly. It is also worth mentioning that ridings in the Montreal region tend to include more voters than those in remote areas. This is because with each review of the electoral map, authorities hesitate to compensate ever-growing urbanization with a widening of the already-gigantic territory of rural ridings.

The easier solution would be having more than a 125 MNAs sitting at the National Assembly. This might help reduce the distortion in how votes are weighted, as least while the Legault government remains firm in its resolve to not embark on an electoral reform.

Another way forward is to essentially remain patient. The CAQ’s base is mostly strong in the 55-plus cohort. As younger generations – and the different notion of “Quebec values” they tend to put forward – increase their weight in the electorate, the political order in the province is bound to shift as well.

That generation is already better represented in the province’s municipal leadership. Big city mayors have played an important role during the campaign, for example, in putting the issues of climate change adaptation and public transportation on the political agenda.

In the next four years, opposition to Mr. Legault will be present, but greatly underrepresented at the National Assembly. It will also be found, however, in city leadership, and most probably in civil society, as well as among Quebec’s culture and media personalities.

Like the unnamed resistance that emerged in urban, central Canada during the majority Harper years, you might see an informal coalition working to push to bring the values of The Other Quebec – big city dwellers, immigrants and young people – to the forefront.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe