Yes, the Conservatives had a popular hockey coach as candidate, but their thumping of the Liberals in Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, Monday night, should worry the Grits.
Canadian voters are not rallying to the Liberals in solidarity as Justin Trudeau confronts Donald Trump over tariffs and trade.
If that confrontation damages the economy, watch out. Next year could be some general election.
The by-election result sends another important signal: The federal New Democrats are dying in Quebec. For them, next year could be a rout.
A caveat: Overinterpreting by-election results is a chronic failing of pundits. Often, local circumstances trump national trends. In Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, the Tories snagged Richard Martel, coach of the fabled Chicoutimi Saguenéens.
But then, the Conservatives were able to get him, weren’t they? Andrew Scheer has been campaigning hard in Quebec, wooing nationalist-but-not-separatist voters whom so many Conservative leaders have courted before him.
The riding, in the Saguenay region north of Quebec City, tends to follow political tides. Reliably Liberal under Pierre Trudeau, reliably Conservative under Brian Mulroney, reliably Bloc Québécois in most elections between 1993 and 2011, when it became part of the NDP Orange Wave.
In the last federal election, the Liberals edged past the NDP by exactly 600 votes, with the Conservatives running a distant fourth. When MP Denis Lemieux stepped down for family reasons, odds favoured the Liberals holding on to this recent gain.
But Mr. Martel’s popularity resulted in a huge swing, sending the Conservatives from fourth to first, with 53 per cent of the vote to the Liberals’ 29 per cent, and the NDP crashing to 9 per cent.
So even as all national party leaders rallied behind Mr. Trudeau in his confrontation with Mr. Trump over tariffs, the voters in Chicoutimi dumped the Liberals for the Tories. And the trade dispute matters there more than almost anywhere. The region has four aluminum smelters, representing a third of Canada’s aluminium production. The local economy could suffer severely if the Americans’ new 10 per cent tariff on aluminium imports starts to bite.
That's why it's important not to misinterpret the sudden surge in approval ratings for Mr. Trudeau, who is up six percentage points to 50 per cent approval in an Ipsos poll released Monday.
“I think most Canadians felt a sense of unfairness and outrage and have rallied behind the PM,” said Ekos pollster Frank Graves, in an exchange. “Whether this is a temporary wag-the-dog respite or a more permanent recovery remains to be seen.”
That same Ipsos poll had the Conservatives slightly ahead of the Liberals in popular support.
Yes, an angered nation unites in support of the Liberal government’s retaliatory, dollar-for-dollar counter tariffs, as Ottawa struggles to contain the damage inflicted by a thuggish president.
But if the North American free-trade agreement talks collapse or the Americans impose tariffs on auto imports, either of which would badly damage the Canadian economy, that unity will dissolve.
Conservatives would demand that the Liberals cut the best available NAFTA deal, to stave off the worst of that damage. New Democrats would demand government support for laid-off workers. And voters would punish the Liberals, despite their best efforts to protect the national interest.
Saguenay, which could be reeling from tariff-induced layoffs, would lash out. The Conservatives rather than the Liberals could pick up the NDP-held riding of Jonquière, next door to Chicoutimi-Le Fjord. They could also take Manicouagan to the east, currently held by the Bloc Quebecois, which is also in danger of extinction.
Elsewhere, the Liberals will probably make gains at the NDP’s expense, especially around Montreal.
For the NDP, Monday’s result is a disaster. Clearly, Jagmeet Singh is not resonating with Quebec voters. At this point, a year and a half before the next election, party strategists have to ask themselves: What can be saved?
The political situation at the federal level has become remarkably ambiguous. Donald Trump threatening Canada with a trade war. Doug Ford bringing populism to Ontario politics. The Liberals and Conservatives essentially tied in popularity. And now a by-election that suggests the NDP may vanish from Quebec.
Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Scheer and Mr. Singh should enjoy as much of the summer as they can. This time next year, a most interesting pre-election campaign will already be well under way.