The Conservative candidate, Alupa Clarke, was at the door of Denise Bastien’s house in Beauport, in suburban Quebec City. Ms. Bastien seemed undecided. She didn’t reject Mr. Clarke, but she said she likes what she hears from Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, too.
“Mr. Blanchet is a good guy, but all he can do is complain,” Mr. Clarke told her.
“No, no,” Ms. Bastien, 73, replied. “He speaks for Quebeckers.”
Still, Mr. Clarke walked away thinking he had a foot in the door, figuratively speaking. “They have an emotional connection to the Bloc,” he said. But he thinks that won’t always seal the vote.
His door-knocking pitch is focused. The Conservatives are running on two main things, he tells the residents of rue Francheville: Bringing “serious” governance back to Ottawa, and protecting Quebeckers’ identity, culture, and language. It’s straight to the point, wooing nationalists who might have supported the Bloc while arguing that, unlike the Bloc, the Conservatives could form government.
Mr. Clarke knows very well that a few votes matter. The former MP won a tight-three way race in 2015, and lost one in 2019 to current Bloc MP Julie Vignola. A fraction of voters switching from Bloc to Conservative could swing the race to him. Or, it could allow the Liberal candidate, former union leader Ann Gingras, to squeeze past both.
Across the province, there’s a broader question: does Mr. Blanchet’s Bloc hold its connection to Quebec voters? How solid is the Bloc?
Two years ago, the Bloc’s resurgence was one key reason Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau lost his majority government. Since then, Mr. Trudeau has put a lot of effort, and political capital, into ensuring his path through Quebec isn’t blocked this time. He needs to pick up some seats in the province, and he certainly can’t afford to lose them. But Mr. Blanchet still stands in the way.
And there’s a peculiar dynamic to the campaign in Quebec. It is the Bloc and Liberals who will compete to win the most seats in the province, but the strength of the other parties will have a big impact on the results.
In 2019, the Bloc Québécois’s revival was aided by a nationalist wedge issue: Bill 21, which barred some public servants from wearing religious symbols. But the Bloc also profited from the collapse of the NDP in the province and the unpopularity of then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Mr. Blanchet became the dominant opposition force, consolidating much of the anti-Trudeau vote. And that cost Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals some seats.
This time, the Liberal campaign in Quebec is hoping for two big things. One is that Mr. Blanchet isn’t handed a new nationalist wedge issue that stokes the Bloc campaign. The other, particular to Quebec, is the hope that the Conservatives gain a little ground.
The Liberals have a ceiling. They will win seats in Montreal, and they have support in many places, but there is a pool of anti-Trudeau, never-red Quebeckers they will never reach – mostly francophone, nationalist voters. The Conservatives are more likely to steal away those potential Bloc supporters. And there is nothing the Liberals would like better than to see those voters divided – so their candidates can squeeze past.
Now, the Quebec campaign is about to heat up, with the first French-language leaders debate scheduled for Thursday.
Over the pandemic, the Liberals have inched up a few points from their 2019 Quebec results in most opinion polls, and the Bloc has drifted slightly down. Mr. Blanchet’s campaign hasn’t plummeted, but it hasn’t yet found a driving force.
At a campaign stop next to Quebec City’s Chateau Frontenac on Wednesday, the Bloc Leader looked relaxed, but occasionally a little peeved.
He said he’d be pleased to answer questions, “yet again,” about intra-party squabbles over his decisions to appoint candidates in several ridings, which have been a talking point in the news for days.
And he made a high-profile flip-flop. He said is now backing the Quebec government’s call for Ottawa to pay 40 per cent of the cost of a proposed $10-billion tunnel across the St-Lawrence, dubbed the “third link.” It’s popular with suburban Quebec City commuters, but viewed as an environmentally unsound mega-project by green-conscious voters in the urban core, and in other parts of the province.
The Bloc’s struggle with that issue is symbolic of one of its broader challenges: its supporters straddle left and right. Mr. Clarke, the Conservative candidate, tells voters in the modest bungalows of suburban Beauport that the Tories would fund the project. But the Bloc candidate, Ms. Vignola, also needs to win the progressive, green voters in the more urban Limoilou part of the riding, who oppose the project.
In central Montreal, the NDP is hoping to push its way into three-way races with the Bloc and Liberals, wooing urban voters with sweeping social promises and an emphasis on what party strategists say polls show as the number-one election issue: climate change. But in suburbs and small towns across Quebec, where many voters talk about affordability or the pandemic, it is the Tories in three-way contests.
In the 2019 election campaign, Mr. Blanchet had sharper weapons to work with. Mr. Scheer’s stumbling answers about his anti-abortion views allowed the articulate Bloc leader to maul him in the first French-language debate.
And Mr. Blanchet had a nationalist wedge issue with Bill 21 – one being pressed by a powerful figure, in the form of Quebec Premier François Legault.
In Quebec, politics focuses first on the provincial scene, and Mr. Legault was then – and is now – the dominant figure in it. In 2018, his Coalition Avenir Québec, a centre-right, nationalist-but-not-sovereigntist party, beat the parties that governed Quebec for 50 years, the Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois. It ran on pocketbook promises and populist Quebec identity issues, such protecting French and reducing immigration.
In the 2019 campaign, when Mr. Legault snapped at federal party leaders for opposing Bill 21, the Bloc’s Mr. Blanchet had a rallying cry: the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP were all out of touch with Quebec. He parlayed the Quebec Premier’s issue – and popularity – into Bloc success.
Since then, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have worked to ensure that doesn’t happen again. The Liberal Leader and his Quebec lieutenant, Pablo Rodriguez, have cozied up to Mr. Legault and his ministers. There was pandemic co-operation. Funding deals with Quebec have flowed, for everything from rural broadband to a $6-billion arrangement on child care announced at a chummy press conference where Mr. Legault and Mr. Trudeau shared smiles.
When Mr. Legault tabled a language bill that included an amendment to the Constitution declaring Quebec a nation, Mr. Trudeau surprised even the CAQ by giving it tacit acceptance. The electoral goal was to ensure that Mr. Legault didn’t hand the Bloc another gift in the 2021 campaign.
So when Mr. Legault convened reporters at the National Assembly Thursday to tell them what he wanted from electioneering federal leaders, and criticized the Liberals and NDP for “centralist” health-care policies, it was a blow to the notion that François and Justin see eye-to-eye.
The jurisdictional squabble over health care probably doesn’t have the populist impact of Bill 21. And Mr. Legault gave a little nod to Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives. A nationalist, he said – “I’m not saying sovereigntist, I’m saying nationalist” – will find the Liberals and NDP centralist, he said, suggesting two parties, the Conservatives and the Bloc, are not.
That’s a nudge for Mr. Blanchet’s Tory competitors. Mr. O’Toole, having distanced himself from his predecessor by declaring he is pro-choice, is already wooing his blue nationalist voters with pledges to protect French and give Quebec more power over immigration. And Mr. Legault didn’t hand Mr. Blanchet sole possession of a galvanizing issue for nationalists on a point of Quebec identity.
“So far, the Bloc hasn’t talked a lot about those questions,” said Steven Guilbeault, a Liberal cabinet minister and candidate in the central Montreal riding of Laurier–Sainte Marie. The line between federalists and sovereigntists or nationalists has been softening for years, he said. “Those fissures are smaller.”
In urban Laurier-Sainte Marie, the campaign is far from what it is in Beauport. Mr. Guilbeault’s campaign office is in a vacant bar on St. Denis Street, next to a vegetarian restaurant. It’s a hip riding of artists, environmentalists, and activists – which suits Mr. Guilbeault, who was a well-known environmentalist before he was elected in 2019. In his campaign calls, no one has mentioned the deficit, he said, and surprisingly few have spoken abut the pandemic. The biggest issue is climate change.
That’s why NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made a campaign stop nearby on Monday, during which he promised to cut all oil-company subsidies and go all-in on climate policy. That’s a big issue next door in Rosemont, the one Quebec seat the NDP still holds, and in the handful of surrounding seats where the party might be competitive in three-way races with the Liberals and the Bloc.
In the 2019 campaign, the NDP ran French-language ads in which Mr. Singh took off his turban to try to break the ice with Quebeckers in the midst of the Bill 21 debate. This time, the party is leaning into Mr. Singh’s likable persona and emphasizing audacious policies, in order to send young progressive voters the message that he’s not just a politician – and that he would take much bolder action than Mr. Trudeau on issues like housing and the environment.
Mr. Blanchet, a former Quebec environment minister, will campaign on those issues, too. A large survey by a Radio-Canada election website found climate change matters more to Bloc supporters than those of other parties.
But the Bloc also has to keep its support in other parts of Quebec, where the issues fall differently. In Beauport, Mr. Clarke, the Conservative candidate, knocked on the door of more than one resident who complained Mr. Trudeau is “printing money,” or spending wildly. Some talked about the much-publicized labour shortage, particularly in retail and hospitality, and blamed it on Ottawa’s generous pandemic benefits.
At a nearby shopping centre, Marie-Eve Blanchard, a 47-year-old nurse, said she is undecided but has definitely ruled out voting for heavy-spending, “completely off-track” Mr. Trudeau. It’s not about the environment or tunnel projects for her, but rather getting past the pandemic and its restrictions. “We’re in a straitjacket, and all we want is to get out of it,” she said.
In the last election, it was Mr. Blanchet who pulled most of those anti-Trudeau voters together and built a bulwark for his party that helped block the Liberal Leader’s path to a majority. This time around, the outcome depends on whether he can keep that support in one piece.
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