Trudeau’s Path to Majority Leads Through Quebec Separatist Turf

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to add only 15 seats to secure a parliamentary majority in next month’s snap election. Quebec, his home province, might seem an obvious place to find most of them.

It is not.

Such are the politics of francophone regionalism that despite his French name, heritage and fluency, Trudeau is regarded by many in the province with suspicion. He has unseemly national ambitions and an appetite for centralized government -- plus his father called in the troops to crush separatist extremists five decades ago.

In places like Saint-Eustache, 25 miles northwest of Montreal, defending Quebec’s identity is all that matters for many. It was the site of a decisive 19th-century battle in which the British army killed dozens of Quebec rebels known as Patriotes. And in the last election of 2019, it was one of the districts won by the Bloc Quebecois as it tripled its seat count.

Trudeau’s Path to Majority Leads Through Quebec Separatist Turf

Today, the Bloc is less about parting with Canada and more about advancing a Quebec First agenda. As Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet put it last week: “Be in favor of all that’s good for Quebec, stand against all that’s not, and try to improve it to make it so.”

Trudeau’s Liberal Party aims to show that it fits the bill. It hopes the prime minister’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, a recent bill to protect the French language, and improved relations with Quebec’s popular premier will help it stage a comeback. 

For now, the party is looking for a spark to a campaign that is off to a sluggish start. With polls tightening nationally, Trudeau unveiled a pair of progressive pledges on consecutive days this week: one to ban foreigners from buying homes and another to lift lift taxes on banks.

Trudeau’s Path to Majority Leads Through Quebec Separatist Turf

The Liberals have little choice but to focus on Quebec because out west -- a land of oil, soil and small government -- they have scant support.

And this part of the province has a volatile recent political history, suggesting an opening for a clever campaign. It has changed hands over the past decade among three contenders: Liberals, the Bloc and the left-leaning New Democratic Party. So Trudeau’s candidates have a shot to make gains there in the Sept. 20 vote.

That means going after the Bloc but avoiding a direct attack on secularism, a French and French-Canadian principle that seeks to bar the wearing of religious garb -- like the Muslim headscarf -- at schools and other public institutions.

Trudeau, who is visiting Quebec City on Thursday, wants to shift the debate to the generous pandemic income supports and successful vaccination campaign he’s overseen. Polls so far show the main opposition Conservatives nipping at Liberal heels nationally, while the Bloc enjoys steady second-place support in the province.

Trudeau’s Path to Majority Leads Through Quebec Separatist Turf

Thanks in part to the prime minister’s glad-handing with Premier Francois Legault, the Bloc’s ability to hold the seats it seized last time isn’t guaranteed. As Sebastien Dallaire, a vice president at polling firm Ipsos in Montreal, put it: “Will they be able to find issues that really generate a lot of traction with Quebec voters? That’s going to be the core challenge.”

On the ground in Riviere-des-Mille-Iles, the district that comprises Saint-Eustache and three other suburbs on the waterfront, Liberal candidate Linda Lapointe is trying to convince voters they’ll get more out of a lawmaker who has the ear of cabinet ministers.

“There’s this line I say when going door to door,” she told supporters last week. “You have two choices: go back to government, or be in the opposition.”

A former supermarket owner and business advocate who did a stint in provincial politics, Lapointe won her federal mandate in the 2015 election that carried Trudeau to power, but then lost to Bloc in 2019.

On the Hustings

At his first campaign event on Aug. 15, before joining a street party and posing for selfies in his own Montreal riding, the prime minister was joined by Lapointe and the candidate from the adjacent district, who was also defeated last time.

Interviews and informal conversation in Saint-Eustache and nearby Rosemere revealed contrasting views of Trudeau. Some expressed frustration at having yet another election, and concerns about Liberal programs that racked up billions of dollars in government debt and are seen worsening a labor shortage.

Others, such as Luc Courtemanche, a driver whose son received a C$2,000 ($1,580) monthly stipend for people who lost income because of the virus, commended the prime minister’s pandemic policies. “When I ask ‘Who would have done better than him?’ no one answers,” Courtemanche said last week.

Lapointe, in an interview, also touted more recent Liberal policies. Funding for electric-vehicle companies such as Volvo Group’s Nova Bus-- one of the district’s biggest employers -- showed dedication to a greener future, she said. She also mentioned a C$6 billion transfer to Quebec to boost daycare spaces.

Trudeau’s Path to Majority Leads Through Quebec Separatist Turf

Leading up to this month’s election call, Trudeau made several announcements alongside Legault, a nationalist politician who came out of the pandemic with high approval ratings. The two men clashed on issues like immigration in the past, but have made a show of their warmer relationship, calling each other by their first names.

“It’s a marriage of convenience,” said Daniel Beland, director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada. “Legault knows Trudeau has a good chance to remain as prime minister, and Trudeau knows very well Legault will stay in power.”

Unlike in 2019, Trudeau has also refrained from criticizing Legault’s secularism law. In another nod to Quebec, the Liberal government presented a sweeping bill on languages in June to “foster substantive equality” between French and English, including outside of the province.

Back in the Montreal suburbs, Luc Desilets -- the separatist incumbent -- shrugged off Trudeau’s overtures. The Bloc is counting on its proposals to boost income for seniors, protect language rights and the environment, and secure more federal money for health care to win over Quebeckers. 

A novelist and former school director, Desilets volunteered for the party for years, running for the first time in 2019. He won by 2,620 votes then, or about 3% of registered voters. Feedback he’s received makes him more confident.

“I’m not really worried about my constituency,” he said. “I expect to double that easily.”

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