Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded with more restraint than might have been expected to Quebec's new legislation forcing women to unveil before receiving public services, based on his past willingness to take a strong stand against such policies.
To start this week, Mr. Trudeau's Liberals won a by-election in the sort of Quebec riding where the controversial bill is likely to enjoy overwhelming support – that is, if local voters think it goes far enough.
There is a connection to be drawn here, and it's about much more than just one relatively inconsequential vote between elections. It's about why Mr. Trudeau may believe he needs to moderate his views on one of the country's most divisive issues – anti-niqab laws he called a "cruel joke" while in opposition, but has now said it's not Ottawa's job to challenge – to maintain a strong hold on power.
That's because Quebec ridings such as Lac-Saint-Jean, which the Liberals claimed on Monday after the retirement of Conservative MP Denis Lebel, offer some of their best hopes for seat gains in the general election two years away. And depending on how things shake out elsewhere, those constituencies – most of them in rural areas, small towns or Quebec City – could decide whether they win a second majority government.
That majority is more tenuous than it might seem. To hold onto it, without pickups elsewhere, the Liberals could afford to lose no more than 14 of the 184 seats they won last time.
Even if they go into the 2019 campaigns with generally encouraging poll numbers – controversies such as the current ones involving tax reforms and their Finance Minister's personal affairs having blown over – there will still be a good prospect of erosion here and there. There are at least a few ridings (Kelowna-Lake Country, in the B.C. Interior, is often held up as an example) usually so disinclined toward Liberals that it may not be possible to repeat their 2015 success. Jagmeet Singh's ascent to the NDP's helm should make their lives more challenging in a handful of urban and suburban seats in the Toronto and Vancouver areas, at a bare minimum. Presumably, they won't be able to win every single seat in Atlantic Canada in perpetuity.
In English Canada, offsetting any such losses won't be easy. After the last campaign, the Liberals were optimistic about building off their Alberta beachheads, but unless the resource sector looks much better in two years, they might be lucky to win back the three seats they hold there now. Other Western provinces – notably Saskatchewan, where they have only one seat – might be more promising. But in much of the country, the Liberals are close to maxed out.
Quebec is a much different story. After Monday's vote, they still hold only 41 of its 78 seats. And if they could claim Lac-Saint-Jean – a riding northeast of Quebec City where they had not won since 1980, and finished in a tie for third last election with 15 per cent – they have to see most of the rest as accessible to them.
The 16 NDP seats in the province, down from 59 after the 2011 election, could be up for grabs if Quebeckers don't take to Mr. Singh. The Conservatives, who now hold 11, seem to be as unpopular in Quebec as ever. The Bloc Québécois has a little life in it, but also just proved unable to reclaim a riding once held by Lucien Bouchard. Meanwhile, whatever antipathy toward Mr. Trudeau's last name lingered through the last election seems to be even less of a factor now; if his act is wearing thin with some other Canadians, Quebeckers still seem to be warming to him.
As he tries to close the deal with voters in ridings with strong anti-niqab sentiments, Mr. Trudeau's position on the issue – which remains that it's not the government's role to tell women how to dress – will obviously not be a selling point. But if he can avoid inserting himself too directly into the debate, and avoid being accused by nationalist Quebec politicians of attempting to interfere with provincial jurisdiction, he might be able to avoid it being a deal-breaker (not to mention it putting off Quebeckers who overlooked differences on the issue to vote for his party last time).
He could also, of course, wind up contributing to seat losses in the rest of the country, by compromising his image as a defender of civil liberties and minority rights.
That may not be a risk worth taking, even setting aside any weight it might have on Mr. Trudeau's conscience. Recent electoral history suggests there is absolutely no guarantee any political positioning geared toward Quebec will pay dividends – the province's electorate tending to move in unpredictable waves, divorced from pre-election speculation, only once federal campaigns begin in earnest.
But in their initial response to Quebec's latest curbing of religious freedoms, at least, Mr. Trudeau's Liberals seemed to be trying to preserve the prospect of the next wave going in their direction. If so, what happened in Lac-Saint-Jean won't dissuade them from continuing to disappoint some of their supporters elsewhere.