canada

Why Trudeau's political survival hinges on Quebec

The province is living up to its reputation for wild, unpredictable races.

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau’s perilous path to reelection this fall runs through Canada’s version of a swing state on steroids: Quebec. And with just two weeks left to go before Canadians head to the polls, the province is living up to its reputation for wild, unpredictable races.

Home to nearly a quarter of the seats in Canada’s parliament, the French-speaking province is a volatile electoral battleground prone to wave elections that suddenly wipe out campaign prognostications. Quebec voters have now voted en masse for three different parties in the last three federal elections. In 2015, Trudeau’s Liberals went from seven Quebec seats to 40 — and, with the party expected to lose seats elsewhere, its survival depends on another strong showing there.

The blasé Québécois reaction to Trudeau’s blackface scandal in mid-September is one reason his campaign hasn’t suffered much visible damage from the controversy in polls. The issue didn't even come up in a French language debate between Trudeau and three other party leaders last week in Montreal. (Quebec’s importance explains why Trudeau early on agreed to two French language debates and only one English one — which takes place Monday night in Ottawa.)

The need to hold onto seats in this milk-producing, French-speaking province also explains why Trudeau resisted liberalizing the dairy industry in North American trade talks, and why he's been timid in criticizing a controversial law targeting religious minorities. And while Trudeau’s party maintains a lead across the province, the size of that lead is deceiving. The numbers are shifting quickly, with the separatist Bloc Québécois party, led by Yves-Francois Blanchet, leapfrogging past the Conservatives since the first French debate. And Trudeau's province-wide numbers are inflated by urban Montreal, hiding far closer races elsewhere in the province.

Outcomes in those wild four-party battles will decide the majority of Quebec’s 78 seats and, possibly, also the outcome of the Canadian election.

Quebec is Trudeau’s home province and where his seat is, though that local-son advantage is mitigated by the tumultuous relationship his Liberal Party and his late father had with the province, strained by old battles over the constitution and Quebec independence.

A longtime Liberal official says the province provides a valuable firewall for Trudeau, given the likelihood the party will lose seats elsewhere. Trudeau can only afford to lose eight seats and retain his parliamentary majority, and he’d be defeated entirely if he lost too many more.

Quebec is the one populous region where the Liberals might not only hold onto huge numbers, but even potentially make some gains. Elsewhere, they’re projected to lose seats in Ontario, Alberta and on the Atlantic Coast where they took literally 100 percent of seats four years ago and where a few popular incumbents have retired.

“It comes down to math,” the official said, speaking of Quebec. “And the fruit is ripe there.” He joked about the comparative stability of American elections, compared with Quebec’s: “What we call a ‘wave’, you call a ‘tsunami.’”

Quebec’s uniquely combustible campaigns stem from old feuds over Quebec independence; the rise of new parties; four-way parliamentary races; and fluid partisan self-identification. The result: Distant also-rans have a history of instantaneously catapulting from second or even third place into first, raking in scores of House of Commons seats that determine Canadian election winners.

For the sake of comparison, imagine this scenario unfolding in the U.S.: A third party, just slightly more visible than the Libertarians or Greens, mutates, within days, into an electoral colossus that gobbles up three-quarters of the districts in the U.S. House of Representatives in a 325-seat wave.

Impossible, right? Well, it’s roughly what happened in Quebec in 1984, 1993, 2011 and 2015; four different parties transformed instantly into electoral behemoths.

Ask Laurin Liu. She has personal experience with two past waves — one that carried her into Parliament, the other out of it.

She's one of four college students who went from being part of McGill University's campus club for the New Democratic Party to becoming members of Parliament in the unexpected wave of 2011. Liu was 20 and only agreed to include her name on a federal ballot because the left-leaning NDP couldn’t find candidates to run in the no-hope ridings outside Montreal. She consented, because she supported the party and wanted to help it field a full slate of candidates.

“I was writing my final exams,” Liu said, describing her original plans for the spring of 2011. “I was so far from believing [I’d win].”

She had so little expectation of winning that she wasn’t even watching the returns on election night, and spent the evening helping another campaign count ballots. She found out she was elected in a text message from a friend, one of nearly five-dozen NDPers elected from Quebec, elevating that party to Canada’s official opposition for the first time in its history.

The best-known story of that wave involved an English-speaking bartender from Ottawa. She was elected in a distant area of French-speaking Quebec, despite her having weak command of the local language and so little expectation of winning she spent part of the campaign on a birthday trip to Las Vegas. But Ruth-Ellen Brosseau wound up improving her French, winning enough fans in her new hometown that she was reelected in 2015. A new local poll suggests she might be one of the final NDPers left standing in Quebec after this election.

One of the NDP’s top strategists back then recalls the shock felt by some victorious candidates. “There are lots of people who never — and I mean never — thought they’d be elected to Parliament,” said Karl Bélanger, who’s now a political analyst.

Bélanger attributes the sudden NDP rise in 2011 to Quebecers’ fatigue with the former dominant party: the Bloc Québécois. Competitive in every election to this day, the Bloc promotes Quebec’s separation from Canada; exists primarily to lobby for the province’s causes; and has no aspiration of actually governing.

Bélanger says one facilitating factor is Canada’s first-past-the-post parliamentary voting system. In a district-by-district battle for seats involving four parties, tiny movements in support can have disproportionately seismic effects .

Bélanger explains the math this way: A party polling at 18 percent provincially wins almost nothing in a four-way race. At 25 percent, it can expect to win lots of seats. Every additional point brings new seats, and at 40 percent it’s won a landslide.

But there’s a second factor specific to Quebec: it’s a legacy of the battle over independence.

A sizable minority of voters in the French-speaking province have always wanted to create their own country, and that issue monopolized the political debate in the 1980s and 1990s. Consumed by that existential clash at home, many voters gazed with glassy-eyed indifference at faraway Ottawa and its comparatively mundane debates about things like marginal tax rates and military spending.

“Federal politics in Quebec became less polarized. People considered it of secondary importance,” said Pierre Martin, a political-science professor at the University of Montreal.

“As it was less of a priority, their choices seemed to have less consequence, and they could be more flexible in switching from one party to another.”

Third, there’s a slow-rolling realignment under way.

The independence debate has been shoved to the back burner and Quebecers are test-driving new political parties. They’ve now voted en masse for three different parties in the last three federal elections, and also elevated new parties provincially.

Martin, whose area of specialty is American politics, adds a final factor that makes party allegiances far weaker in Quebec than in the U.S.: The national parties and provincial ones are different.

While this is true in several Canadian provinces, it’s especially so in Quebec, where the province’s governing party, Coalition Avenir Québec, was created a few years ago and has no federal equivalent. It’s the same with the No. 3 party, Québec Solidaire; and the No. 2 party, the Quebec Liberals, are a distinct provincial entity with only informal ties to Trudeau’s federal party carrying the same name.

That’s a huge difference from a place, like the U.S., with a culture of strong partisan identity in which people vote a straight ticket from the White House down to the local mayor.

Pollster David Coletto says there’s no concept of straight-ticket voting in Quebec.

"If you’re a Democrat at the federal level, you’re probably a Democrat at the state level,” said Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data. “Those structural factors help explain why Quebec is so willing, at any given time, to vote for a completely different party.”

The NDP suffered a massive loss in Quebec in 2015, and it wasn’t just because of the death of the party’s popular leader, Jack Layton, from cancer. What caused a wild swing in the votes was a court fight over whether Muslim women could take the oath of Canadian citizenship wearing the face-covering niqab.

The NDP defended niqab-wearing women; it was not the popular position in Quebec. Seeing an opening, the then-governing Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois pounded the NDP for it. They succeeded — the NDP’s support collapsed instantly.

By the time the dust cleared from that bombardment, another center-left leader, previously in third place, ignored on the sidelines of that battle, emerged unscathed.

Several weeks later, Trudeau was prime minister of Canada.

“Trudeau slipped under the radar,” Bélanger said. “When the storm cleared, the ballot question was still, ‘Who can defeat [Conservative prime minister] Stephen Harper?’ The NDP was out of the game, and people turned to Justin Trudeau.”

The current campaign carries some echoes of 2015. Minority religious rights remain a dominant political issue in the province.

This time, the most-discussed issue in Quebec politics is a law whose effect is to ban religious minorities, particularly Muslim women, from wearing religious headwear in public jobs.

The Bloc is trying to use the issue to get back its old prominence. It wants Trudeau and others to commit to never challenging that provincial law in court.

Trudeau, meanwhile, is trying desperately to keep the story out of the election headlines. He says he disagrees with the law, is pleased it’s being challenged in a provincial court, and won’t say anything about what he'll do after the election.

Some pundits view that as a disgracefully equivocal stance from the leader of a party, the Liberals, and the son of a former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, that enshrined minority rights in Canada’s modern Constitution.

But Martin says it could be politically suicidal for Trudeau to throw himself into this fight now.

“If this issue becomes a big one for the Liberals, they will lose out. Because most Quebecers like the law,” Martin said. “But it’s unpredictable, in a four-way race.”