Skip to main content

NDP leadership candidate Guy Caron spent last week travelling through Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Toronto to tell New Democrats that he can win in Quebec. There's not much point taking the message directly to Quebec: There are hardly any NDP members there to hear it.

This is a sign of the biggest problem facing the next leader of the NDP. The party has fallen off the radar in Quebec. There's a leadership race, and Quebeckers don't care.

That would have been par for the course seven years ago, when the NDP had one seat in the province. But now Quebec is key. The NDP has more seats in the province, 16, than in any other; it won 59 seats there just six years ago. Yet the NDP is nearly starting over in Quebec now.

A Léger Marketing poll in late August placed NDP support at 19 per cent in Quebec, 24 percentage points behind the Liberals. The rest of the numbers were worse. Most were uninterested in the NDP leadership race. When asked who they preferred as leader, three out of the four candidates garnered the support of less than 5 per cent. Mr. Caron, a native son, came in at 12 per cent – but 80 per cent chose either "I don't know" or "none of the above."

Recruiting by leadership candidates expanded the ranks of party members across the country to about 124,000, but only 4,000 in Quebec. Even if a candidate such as Mr. Carron won the votes of all of them, it would represent 3 per cent of the party. In the homestretch, why waste time campaigning in Quebec?

"It's clear that none of the candidates managed to interest the average Quebecker. That's problematic," said Karl Bélanger, an aide to three NDP leaders and former national director of the party. "But Quebec as an issue will be important in the end because strategically and tactically, the only way for the party to gain power is with a large contingent of MPs from Quebec."

Mr. Caron is telling New Democrats that being competitive in Quebec helps the party win seats across the country because it makes them a credible national alternative. And, of course, he argues that he is best-placed to win in the province. Mr. Caron remains a dark horse to win the leadership, however, and his claim to be a Quebec winner isn't proven: He didn't sign up a lot of Quebeckers for NDP membership cards, either.

It might be that one of those English Canadians who are still unknown to Quebeckers would do better. The putative front-runner, Jagmeet Singh, speaks pretty good French for a Brampton MPP. That Léger poll conducted in August suggested that 28 per cent of Quebeckers would be less likely to vote for the NDP if it were led by a turbaned Sikh. But it's possible that a lot of those people were never going to vote for the NDP anyway; Mr. Singh, 38, does have youthful urban hipster image that might help in the Montreal ridings where the NDP seems strongest now.

The good news is that the Liberals' commanding lead in Quebec belies an unpredictable political landscape. The province is no longer divided on fault lines between Liberal red and sovereigntist blue. Justin Trudeau has a big lead in polls now, while the three other parties are weak, with regional strengths. But there is ample room for things to shift dramatically, as they did in 2011 and 2015.

The bad news is that the NDP doesn't seem to know what to say to Quebec any more. It has been a patchwork of federalists and disaffected sovereigntists, socialists and centrists, and they've struggled with the debate over so-called "reasonable accommodations" for immigrants and the wearing of religious symbols. New Democratic MP Pierre Nantel complained last week that the three English Canadian candidates in the leadership race criticized Quebec's Bill 62, which would require people to uncover their face when they receive public services – he hinted that if one of them won, he might sit as an independent MP. Then Mr. Nantel opined that secular Quebeckers don't want a leader who wears "ostentatious" religious symbols such as Mr. Singh's turban.

Those forces are going to be hard to pull together for whoever wins this leadership race, especially as they will be starting out in Quebec as complete unknowns. The new leader's biggest challenge is already pretty clear: making the party a force again in a province that is losing interest in the NDP.