The 2019 federal election confirmed deep rifts in the country – from reinvigorated Quebec nationalism to Prairie anger over stalled pipelines and a suffering economy. But the results also revealed divisions that rarely get the same attention, such as the widening gulf between cities and the aging populations of rural areas.
Returns Monday night showed the Bloc Québécois, once considered a spent force, competing for the plurality of Quebec’s 78 seats with the Liberals, powered by nationalist sentiment and greying voters; and Alberta and Saskatchewan stayed a deep shade of Conservative blue, with two isolated NDP and Liberal islands among the 48 seats.
Vast northern regions of Ontario, Manitoba and and the territories with large Indigenous populations were shades of red and orange, along with downtown Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, where there was a smattering of green. Mid-sized cities and the suburbs were the swing riding checkerboards that decided the election in the end.
The Liberal victory pitted big cities against rural regions, the North against southern cousins and the old against the young. Younger urban and northern ridings largely remained with the centre-left parties, while aging rural areas were resoundingly Conservative and Bloc Québécois.
Renewed leadership has helped drive Quebec nationalism and more robust Prairie demands, turning Quebec to the Bloc and keeping the countryside blue.
In Alberta, Jason Kenney has suggested that another term of Trudeau government would threaten national unity, while Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has been a reliable wingman, pushing Prairie interests with Ottawa.
“It’s certainly true that a Liberal victory of any kind will not be well perceived, especially by the two premiers who have gone to war against Justin Trudeau,” said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, who taught for 17 years at universities in Alberta and Saskatchewan before moving to the Montreal think tank last year. “It will increase the tension with Ottawa with Justin Trudeau remaining in power, even as a minority [government]. A majority [would have been] a scream fest.”
Both Quebec’s second-year Premier François Legault and rookie Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet rose by promising to add urgency to provincial demands for more autonomy.
“The big winner of this election is François Legault,” said Jean-Marc Léger, founder of the polling firm that bears his name. “He was at the heart of the campaign, and after what happened in this campaign he’s going to carry a much greater weight when he makes demands.”
Mr. Léger also noted that separatist and nationalist parties garnered 70 per cent of popular support in the 2018 Quebec election and were still well over 50 per cent during most of the Liberal years, from 2003 to 2018.
“There is always a strong nationalist sentiment in Quebec,” he said. “It’s just not always apparent.”
During those Liberal years, the province was led by Jean Charest and Philippe Couillard, two of the “most federalist and least nationalist premiers in Quebec history. You have to go back to Adélard Godbout in the Second World War to find a Quebec premier who had so little interest in nationalism,” Prof. Béland said.
The rise of Quebec nationalism and deep Prairie grievance do not pose immediate existential threats to national unity. Separatism is unpopular, and Quebec nationalism and Western alienation have been part of Canadian identity for most of the country’s history.
“Regional differences may be growing at the moment, but in Canada it’s cyclical,” Prof. Béland said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of regionalism or Quebec nationalism. Sometimes they go dormant or are less active, but they are always there.”
Canada has other important dividing lines. Poll analyst Philippe J. Fournier compared regional poll breakdowns to population density during the campaign and found that the 50 most densely populated ridings in Canada were all leaning Liberal or NDP.
Prof. Béland pointed out that farmers who once considered themselves part of the labour class now see themselves as businessmen, leading to a decidedly long-term Conservative shift.
And “one thing we don’t discuss about this is the age structure. Our rural areas are aging quite rapidly, so there’s a demographic issue at play too,” he said.
That’s true for the Bloc as well. Mr. Léger noted that, for the first time in its 28-year history, the party’s supporters are overwhelmingly older than 50. “It has traditionally been a young person’s party, but they are elsewhere now.”
The most striking rift, Prof. Béland said, remains how Indigenous people were barely part of the conversation in the 2019 campaign. In 2015, northern ridings with substantial Indigenous populations often went Liberal and NDP. While they comprise 5 per cent of the population, their voter turnout tends to be lower, and they generally don’t decide elections, he said.
“Their issues should be our issues, but once again they will have to wait for the dust to settle on the campaign,” he said. “The demographics are clear, their dismal economic status is clear, their levels of poverty, their access to water, services. Their policy issues will be on the agenda even if they haven’t been on the political agenda.”
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