La wild card
Éric Duhaime will shake up Quebec politics. Or not. But he's having fun trying
It’s not every day the leader of a Quebec political party parks himself close to Ontario and urges voters to act more like the neighbours. But Éric Duhaime is full of surprises.
“There’s a Conservative government on the other side of the river that cut taxes on July 1,” Duhaime, the leader of the Parti conservateur du Québec, told a little knot of reporters on Wednesday in a Gatineau parking lot. “And François Legault, on this side of the river, refuses to do it.”
Behind him, a digital sign indicated gas is 197.9 cents a litre these days in Gatineau. Later, at the gas station nearest my Ottawa house, the posted price was 181.7 cents. The difference is larger than the 5.7 cents by which Ford cut gas tax on Canada Day, but whatever explains the cheaper gas, it’s sending Gatineau drivers across the river to fill up. Which in turn is hurting Gatineau gas stations more.
“It’s completely unfair,” Duhaime said. “Gas stations are suffering badly.” He called on François Legault, the Quebec premier who’ll be campaigning for re-election on Oct. 2, to “do what Alberta did, what Ontario did, what many states did south of our borders. It’s time to lower the taxes.”
My Big Book of Columnists’ Clichés tells me I should call Duhaime the leader of Quebec’s “upstart” Conservative party, but if we’re being accurate here, it hasn’t really upstarted yet. Or maybe it keeps upstarting and then unstarting. Quebec had a Parti conservateur in the 19th and early 20th centuries, under whose banner eight premiers were elected. Maurice Duplessis essentially shut it down in the 1930s when he formed the Union Nationale. There was a Parti conservateur for a minute in the mid-60s, to no great effect. And there’s been a Parti conservateur since 2009.
The latest party’s impact on electoral politics so far has been negligible. It won less than 1.5% of the vote in 2018, the year Legault’s amorphous populist-nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) swept to power. It’s never elected a member to the National Assembly. For the past year, its only MNA has been a woman who got booted from Legault’s party for, uh, contributing to Duhaime’s.
But things have been getting weird in Quebec this year. An Angus Reid Institute poll last week put Duhaime’s upstart party (see how easy it is?) in second place, well behind Legault’s CAQ but ahead of the historic Liberal and PQ parties and the urban social democrats in Québec Solidaire.
The Quebec Conservatives are, in fact, the leading party among male voters age 18-34 and 35-54. They’re not nearly as competitive among young women or among older voters in general. Duhaime would need his vote to keep growing, and not just a little, to have any chance of winning an election. Frankly he’s likelier to win zero seats, and perhaps likeliest to win somewhere between zero and a dozen.
But the party has already gone from 500 memberships to 60,000 since Duhaime, a former Ottawa political staffer (Bloc Québécois, then Canadian Alliance) and Quebec City talk-radio host, became its leader in 2021. That’s three times as many memberships as the CAQ had when Legault became premier.
Duhaime is working on something, a discourse starkly different from Legault’s and also different, in important ways, from the recent positions of the federal Conservatives. He’s against vaccine restrictions — but he’s been careful not to associate with truck convoy protesters. He’s against Legault’s new French language law, Bill 96. Not because it’s mean to anglophones, although Duhaime is making at least a modest attempt to appeal to conservative anglophone voters, but because the law makes blanket use of the Constitution’s “notwithstanding” clause to sidestep Charter rights. Duhaime says no government should curtail rights so easily. He wants a great big dose of private for-profit health care.
After two years of legislation by order-in-council and intermittent curfews and the most sweeping use of the notwithstanding clause in 40 years, Legault’s Premier-knows-best shtick has opened up room on his libertarian right. Enough room for a solid competitor? Duhaime himself shrugged when I asked him, during a brief chat after the parking-lot scrum.
“We might win this,” he said. “We might get zero seats. On est la ‘wild card’ de la gang.”