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Politics From Trois-Rivières to the Laurentians, Quebec’s election battle lines are drawn

Manon Richer and Ginette Pilon serve food at the Mini-Golf restaurant in Prévost, Que., a town in the Laurentians northwest of Montreal. The Mini-Golf lies in Rivière-du-Nord, one of the strategic Quebec ridings that major parties are staking out from the Montreal suburbs to Trois-Rivières.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

The epicentre of Quebec’s shifting political forces that will help decide the 2019 federal election is in Trois-Rivières, an oft-forgotten, slow-growing regional hub halfway between Quebec City and Montreal.

For the next six weeks and until the Oct. 21 vote, the city where Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer launched his campaign Wednesday will not lack for political attention. Trois-Rivières is one of 14 seats currently held by the NDP where Conservatives, Liberals and the Bloc Québécois are trying to take advantage of New Democrat decline.

Canadian federal election guide: What you need to know before Oct. 21

Montreal may be a Liberal stronghold and Conservatives enjoy a base in Quebec City, but in the vast vote basin stretching outward from the Montreal suburbs and eastward along the St. Lawrence River valley through Trois-Rivières, two dozen ridings are up for grabs. Trois-Rivières and other regional hubs such as Drummondville and Saint-Hyacinthe will be regular campaign stops and play a key role in deciding Canada’s next government.

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The boardwalk in Trois-Rivières, shown on Sept. 11, first day of the election campaign.

Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Trois-Rivières was the first stop of the campaign for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his wife, Jill.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

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A city founded 400 years ago and forged on iron foundries and pulp and paper, Trois-Rivières spent the 1980s and 90s in steep industrial decline before recent mild recovery driven mainly by government investment and service industries. Federally, the riding has spent a lot of time in opposition, backing Bloc or NDP MPs since 1993, when a Conservative government member held it.

In the 2015 election, each of the Bloc, Liberal, Conservative and NDP candidates received at least 10,000 votes in Trois-Rivières. New Democrat Robert Aubin was re-elected with 19,193 votes, 1,000 more than a Liberal challenger.

Once decrepit with empty shops and crumbling pavement, the city now has a revitalized waterfront where cruise ships stop and a modern stone town square where decorative fountains spray along while passersby tinkle on a piano. Potential voters who mill about the square and the city, which is 96-per-cent francophone and 3.2-per-cent immigrant, have made no final decisions.

“It’s pretty mixed up around here, personally I find it very complicated, not a simple decision at all,” said Claude Lamy, a 61-year-old retiree who worked in the pulp and paper industry. Mr. Lamy said his NDP MP has done a good job, but he’s leaning toward the Liberals and Leader Justin Trudeau, saying he hasn’t done anything “catastrophically wrong” as Prime Minister while the other leaders are unknowns. He remains open to a change of heart.

For the governing Liberals, which have 40 of 78 seats in Quebec, boosting their MP count is seen as essential to offset potential losses outside the province. For the Conservatives, which currently have 11 seats in the province, the goal is to at least double that score.

Some of the country’s most fickle voters will decide the outcome. In 2011, they abandoned the Bloc in droves and formed the Orange Wave, swinging massively to Jack Layton’s NDP. In 2015, just four years later, after Mr. Layton’s death from cancer, Quebeckers rallied behind Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal Party.

Many of these voters are again wondering if it is time for a change.

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In Prévost, the Mini-Golf restaurant offers a cross-section of political opinion in Quebec.

Ahead of the election, the Mini-Golf got a visit from Sylvie Fréchette, the Conservatives' candidate in Rivière-du-Nord.

Photos: Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

The Conservatives and Liberals have invested considerable resources in Quebec and have found dynamic candidates. But many voters are disappointed by Mr. Trudeau’s four years in power, and unconvinced of Mr. Scheer’s ability to do better. Many voters say they simply don’t know him.

Interviews with voters show how both leaders are weighing down their parties.

The first thing on Gilles Rousseau’s mind when he met Conservative candidate and former Olympian Sylvie Fréchette at a hamburger joint in the Laurentians, was attacking Mr. Scheer’s intention to allow backbench MPs to introduce anti-abortion legislation.

But Mr. Rousseau, who voted Liberal in the last election, is unimpressed by Mr. Trudeau’s disastrous trip to India last year, in which he and his family members wore local garb at a number of stops. “The image that he projected over the last four years is that of a clown who likes to dress up,” the retired municipal worker said.

Neither he nor his wife, Nicole Fortin, are tempted by the Bloc. They are typical Quebec voters who, polls say, are more likely than other Canadians to decide where to mark their X at the voting station.

“We still have to listen to what the leaders have to say,” Ms. Fortin said. “Maybe a bit of change wouldn’t hurt.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh presents the party's climate-change plan in Montreal on May 31, as deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice, left, looks on.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s turban remains his defining feature in a province where secularism and religious symbols have been a dominant issue.

“They don’t know Jagmeet, and they latch on to the one thing they know about him,” said Mr. Aubin, the NDP MP who is again running in Trois-Rivières.

“When it’s demystified, there’s a door that opens. ... Yes, it’s an extra challenge in Quebec, but it’s not insurmountable.”

For Mr. Trudeau, his trip to India sticks with many voters.

“The image he projected when he put on his disguises in India certainly tarnished the credibility he should have as the person who occupies the function of prime minister,” said Patricia Cossette, a health-care manager in Trois-Rivières.

Still, she hasn’t ruled out voting for him. “He’s incredibly accessible and open to people. We’ve had others who were more distant and imposing. His human side is definitely his strength.”

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Some Quebec voters told The Globe they were unimpressed with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's trip to India. Here, Mr. Trudeau visits an ashram in Ahmedabad on Feb. 19, 2018, with wife Sophie and children Hadrien, Ella-Grace and Xavier.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Pollster and political analyst Jean-Marc Léger said the NDP support has collapsed in Quebec, which opens up three-way races between the Liberals, Conservatives and the Bloc to win the 14 NDP seats.

“It’s like three armies are advancing, and the question is which one of them will invade the other’s territory,” he said. “Among francophone voters, it’s nearly a tie between the three parties. ... It’s hard to predict what will happen because a lot of the seats will be won with one-third of the vote.”

Initial Conservatives gains in Quebec would likely come near Quebec City, where they could add two Liberal seats to the five they hold. Liberal and NDP seats in the Saguenay/Lac-Saint-Jean region to the north are also targets.

The Conservatives have adopted a nationalist message, saying they are willing to work with Quebec to hand over more immigration powers and allow the provincial revenue agency to collect federal income tax in Quebec.

Canadian Olympian Sylvie Fréchette, shown in 1999 before her induction into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.

Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press

The Conservative strategy also hinges on attracting strong local candidates. In Trois-Rivières, former mayor Yves Lévesque is running. North of Montreal, they have attracted the candidacy of Ms. Fréchette, who many Quebeckers remember for winning Olympic gold and silver medals in synchronized swimming in the 1990s.

Ms. Fréchette is representative of the voters the Conservatives seek: She voted for Mr. Trudeau in 2015, but became disillusioned over deficit spending and a sense he wasn’t serious enough.

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Ms. Fréchette knows her success in the riding of Rivière-du-Nord, north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains, will depend on name recognition. “People will vote for the Bloc or for Sylvie Fréchette,” she said.

Still, she hopes to help Mr. Scheer break out of his shell and find a way to tell Quebeckers his values align with theirs. “If I could give myself one mission, it would be to humanize him,” she said.

Mr. Trudeau presents Élisabeth Brière, the Liberal candidate for Sherbrooke, at her nomination meeting in Montreal on Aug. 20, 2019.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The Liberals hope to sweep the island of Montreal, which entails taking three NDP ridings and one from the Bloc in the eastern part of the city.

The Montreal strategy rests on Mr. Trudeau, who is popular in his hometown, but also Steven Guilbeault, a noted environmentalist who will argue Liberal climate change efforts are effective.

Liberal MPs have travelled the province in recent weeks with funding announcements. The Liberals are raising fears of massive cutbacks if the Conservatives form government, contrasting with Liberal deficit spending on infrastructure.

“We are in an expansionist mode, we are not simply trying to defend our positions,” said cabinet minister Pablo Rodriguez, who is seeking re-election in Montreal.

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Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Bloc, with 10 seats, remains a wild card that could take advantage if the Liberals flag or if the Conservatives fail to break through. After years of infighting, the party has stabilized under Yves-François Blanchet, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister and television analyst. It is running under the slogan “Le Québec, c’est nous” (We are Quebec) and a platform railing against Canada’s dependence on non-renewable energy.

“The Bloc can create a surprise,” said Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe, the son of former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe and the party’s candidate in Lac-Saint-Jean. “A lot of people are telling us they are willing to come back to the Bloc.”

At an oldies concert on the lawn of a retirement home on the residential outskirts of Trois-Rivières, the Liberal candidate Valérie Renaud-Martin, a charismatic 37-year-old city councillor, recently shook hands and chatted with retirees in lawn chairs. Ms. Renaud-Martin said complaints about the SNC-Lavalin affair or the India trip are not what she usually hears.

“Honestly, what I hear about most is cannabis,” she said, adding that many people in Trois-Rivières still worry about runaway use among young people. “People still haven’t completely gotten used to [legalization].”

A range of political views were in the concert crowd. One woman was annoyed about Mr. Trudeau’s liberal immigration rhetoric and the ever-present trip to India. A man had questions about Mr. Singh’s turban while another worried about Mr. Scheer and abortion. Hélene Mailloux sat on a bench near a pétanque pitch listening to the conversations and eating a hot dog like a spectator at a sporting event. “It’s going to be close!” Ms. Mailloux said. She remains undecided.

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