Glengarry-Prescott-Russell riding sprawls east of Ottawa. About 40 per cent of the residents speak French and 9 per cent are bilingual. For 44 straight years, the riding voted Liberal, until 2006, when it went Conservative.
Across Canada, what used to be a foundation stone for the Liberal Party – French-speaking populations outside Quebec – has splintered. From Eastern and Northeastern Ontario to Acadia in New Brunswick to Saint Boniface in Manitoba, Liberal dominance is gone.
Maybe in this election the Liberals can claw back some ridings outside Quebec with large French-speaking populations, but there will no sweep. The days are over when francophone Liberal leaders such as Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, both of whom fiercely defended bilingualism and French-language minorities in particular, could count on huge support from francophones outside Quebec.
Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, Ottawa-Orleans, Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, Madawaska-Restigouche, Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe and Saint Boniface are all held today by Conservatives; Timmins-James Bay and Acadie-Bathurst by the NDP.
Only two New Brunswick seats and one in Ottawa with large French-speaking populations remain Liberal.
If Liberals are to make a serious comeback in national politics, they need most of these seats.
Obviously, each of these ridings is different. Francophones are in the majority in some, in the minority in others. Some are urban; others largely rural. Winners in most of these ridings need to attract non-francophone voters, too.
Regardless of their differences, there was a time not long ago when the Liberals owned these ridings. Liberal dominance was built on rock-solid support from francophones. What has happened?
Part of the Liberal decline simply mirrored the party's overall national fade. Voters, whatever their maternal language, turned away from the Liberals.
That explanation is incomplete. Even when the Liberals slumped years ago, losing power to Conservatives, they held on to more of these ridings than in recent years. For example, the Liberals once held Saint Boniface (and one other seat in Manitoba) while losing all the others in the Prairie provinces. Eastern Ontario seats stayed Liberal election after election, regardless of the national outcome.
Maybe memories have faded of the victories for minority-language rights secured under Liberal governments. Gratitude, as every politician knows, does not last forever. It might have been assumed that, with a leader whose last name is Trudeau, the Liberals would be back on top in these ridings. If so, it has not happened yet.
When the Liberals owned the ridings, the New Democratic Party was not a serious factor in national politics, as it became under bilingual leader Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair.
NDP MP Yvon Godin captured and held Acadie-Bathurst in a backlash against changes to unemployment insurance the Chrétien government implemented. Mr. Godin became unbeatable, but is not seeking re-election.
In Ottawa-Vanier, four credible people sought the NDP nomination at a well-attended meeting for a chance to unseat Liberal incumbent Mauril Bélanger, whose majority has shrunk in recent elections.
The Conservatives, years ago, were still considered the party of the anglophones with a few francophobes in their midst. In Ontario, francophones remembered that the Conservative provincial government of Mike Harris sought to close Monfort Hospital, the French-speaking institution in Ottawa. A large public mobilization reversed that decision.
Brian Mulroney's leadership put paid to the impression that the Conservatives nationally were anti-French. Stephen Harper, while not having pushed minority-language rights, has not done anything to harm them. He speaks good French, and that fact is appreciated.
Maybe bread-and-butter issues began to favour other parties in the eyes of francophone voters, and the Conservatives, at least until recently, seemed to be the preferred party to run the economy.
In Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, a rural riding, the Conservative MP is a strong right-to-life individual. It is said (by Liberals) that he uses an anti-abortion stand to good effect among older, francophone Catholic voters in rural parishes. In addition, the Conservatives are the preferred party among farmers across Ontario, language notwithstanding.
If the Harper government agrees to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and therefore Canada accepts more dairy-product imports, the farmers and cheese-makers in this riding will be mad. Will they be mad enough to throw out the Conservative incumbent?
Other parts of the old Liberal coalitions have fallen away, including the majority of French-speakers in Quebec and voters in industrial Ontario. Francophone minorities, too, have drifted away.