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These days you win a Quebec election by not being from Montreal
In April 1995, when he was the freshly-elected premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau showed up at a game between the Montreal Canadiens and Quebec Nordiques. His wife, Lisette Lapointe, was wearing a Nordiques jersey.
It seemed a terrible tactical decision. Honestly if I were advising Parizeau today I’d be nervous. Petty rivalry is the stuff of sports, and Montreal has three times Quebec City’s population, and he was six months away from a secession referendum that would be close.
There’s a good chance it was Mme Lapointe’s decision entirely. Anyway, neither she nor Parizeau were ever interested in letting tactics beat heart whenever the two might conflict. And anyway there were larger concerns. For one, Parizeau was impressed with the notion of Quebec City as a national capital for Quebec. For another, the Nordiques franchise was in danger of leaving town — it soon would — and while Parizeau was dead set against using government money to entice an NHL squad, it didn’t hurt to seem broadly sympathetic to the team.
Most important, Parizeau knew his chances in the referendum and in any future election would be improved if he didn’t seem to be just another Montreal intellectual. He’d been born in the leafy Montreal enclave of Outremont to a bourgeois family of long standing. The only Canadian schools he attended were in Montreal. He ran in Montreal twice unsuccessfully before running a stone’s throw east of the city in suburban L’Assomption — coincidentally, François Legault’s riding today. Lisette Lapointe’s Nordiques jersey was handy distraction from the new premier’s deep Montreal roots.
I think of all this today as I ponder the results of Monday’s election, which went pretty much as expected. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec won nearly every seat outside Montreal, and only two on the island of Montreal. The CAQ won a plurality of the popular vote in every other region, but in Montreal they came third. (Polling analyst Philippe J. Fournier has the numbers in this thread.) The Quebec Liberal Party won a plurality of the vote, and 20 of its 21 seats provincewide, in Montreal; in Quebec City the Liberals won 1 vote in 18.
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There were two upstart Anglo-rights parties in this election. They won trivial shares of the vote. The two parties’ leaders came in fifth and sixth in the ridings where they ran. In 1989 the anglo-rights Equality Party managed to get four people elected to the National Assembly in an atmosphere of similar unease over language politics. But in 1989, voting for a made-up party was a way of protesting against a Liberal provincial government, run by the understated electoral juggernaut Robert Bourassa. In 2022, the Liberal vote is the protest vote. The Liberals and the left-of-NDP Québec Solidaire have almost no presence outside Montreal.
I’m fascinated by a detail of an interview Legault gave, in the campaign’s final days, to Radio-Canada morning host David Chabot in Rouyn, a few hours’ drive from Timmins, ON. This interview had an elevated level of difficulty. Many leaders would not have bothered. Heavy industrial activity for decades at a copper smelter in Rouyn has left elevated levels of arsenic in the air. Legault has talked the smelter owners into getting the level down, but not as low as some experts think it should be.
Legault’s stance is essentially: Rouyn needs this factory and the people there can judge for themselves whether it’s safe. I grew up in a city not all that different from Rouyn, and I suspect it’s a popular stance.
But here’s what struck me about the interview. At least twice, Legault defends the good people of Rouyn against interference from pesky outsiders, including “Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, de Montréal.” He really leans into that bit. Nadeau-Dubois is the leader of Québec Solidaire, which until Monday held the riding that contains Rouyn.
Legault could have said, “Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who’s a notorious socialist.” Or “Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who’s so woke I don’t know what he’s talking about.” Instead he went with calling his rival a Montrealer. Legault, of course, grew up in Montreal and ran an airline there. But he hides it well. After the radio interview, most of the coverage was about how cranky Legault sounded. But on Monday the CAQ candidate beat the QS incumbent four votes to three.
Legault spent the last year defending a road-and-transit tunnel under the St. Lawrence River between Quebec City and Lévis. In the face of initial outrage at the cost (and the fact that such a project encourages road traffic, judged environmentally unfriendly), he whittled the project down to a $6.5 billion price tag. This “third link” is seen in Montreal as utter folly. Even two successive mayors of Quebec City have said they don’t like it. But Legault swept the region on Monday.
As a student I worked three summer jobs in Quebec City. Folks there don’t like to be judged by Montrealers. Legault wasn’t just engaging in transit policy with his project. He was wearing a $6.5 billion Nordiques jersey.
As just about everyone is saying, the first-past-the-post electoral system did a dirty on every party that wasn’t the CAQ this year. Legault ran in 2018 on a promise to reform the electoral system. He announced, under cover of last year’s COVID lockdown, that he would ignore that promise. This year he insisted he won’t change the voting system, and cheekily, he’s now saying he’ll keep that promise.
It took about 19,000 votes to elect a CAQ MNA, about 200,000 to elect one from the Parti Québécois, and fully half a million to elect zero members of the provincial Conservative Party. When a member of the small and divided opposition stands in the National Assembly, they’ll have more voters behind them, probably frustrated voters, than members of the governing caucus. None of this is unheard-of, but it doesn’t encourage any sense that politics is fair.
The tension is aggravated by the way Legault obviously campaigned on suburban and small-town Quebec’s guesses about what Montreal must be like. A new law to protect French isn’t needed in Drummondville, nor a law to ban religious garb among public servants in Chicoutimi. And according to most voters in Montreal, they aren’t needed in Montreal either. Legault spent the campaign’s home stretch telling voters in Rouyn they wouldn’t be bossed around by someone from Montreal. But now people in Montreal will be told how to live their lives by people in Rouyn. Of course everyone concerned will deny it’s so, but they would do well to keep it in mind.
And this: Among the few Quebecers with clout in Justin Trudeau’s federal government, all except Jean-Yves Duclos come from Montreal. (Update: and Francois-Philippe Champagne, from Shawinigan by way of Cleveland.) One of Legault’s ministers said 80% of immigrants don’t work and don’t learn French. One of Trudeau’s ministers was born in Argentina. So there’s a dynamic.
One never knows how long the federal Liberals will be in government. I asked Legault about Pierre Poilievre; he said he doesn’t know the new Conservative leader, and privately his staff say the same. One of the first things they’ll learn about each other is that while Poilievre is a great advocate of the LNG Québec natural-gas project, Legault rejects it outright. So there’s another dynamic.