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Liberals confident about Quebec riding vacated by Lebel, despite no victories there since 1980

By Abbas Rana      

Outgoing Conservative MP Denis Lebel was a popular former mayor who will be hard for the party to replace.

Former Quebec Conservative MP Denis Lebel officially resigned from his House seat earlier this month. The Liberals are hoping to steal this seat in the byelection that has not yet been scheduled. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The Liberals are confident about their chances of replacing the recently departed Conservative MP Denis Lebel in the riding of Lac-Saint-Jean, Que., despite not having won a seat there in 37 years and finishing third in the 2015 election.

Liberals are saying that because of the party’s impressive performance nationally in 2015 and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) personal popularity, they will surprise political opponents by winning Mr. Lebel’s old riding in the upcoming byelection.

“The Liberal Party will win the next election in Lac-Saint-Jean, 100 per cent sure,” said Richard Hébert, who is one of the two candidates running for the Liberal nomination in the riding. The second candidate seeking the Liberal nomination is Marjolaine Étienne, an Indigenous community leader.

Liberals say the popularity of Justin Trudeau will help them win a byelection in the riding vacated by Denis Lebel. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

As of deadline last week, Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) had not called the byelection in the riding. The seat there officially became vacant on Aug. 9, and according to Elections Canada, the prime minister has until Feb. 5, 2018 to call the byelection, for which at least 36 days notice must be given.

None of the main parties have yet chosen their candidates for the byelection.

In the last election, Mr. Lebel, a former popular mayor of Roberval, Que., was re-elected a third time with 33.3 per cent of the votes, 4.8 percentage points ahead of second-place NDP candidate Gisèle Dallaire who had 28.4 per cent, and the Liberal and Bloc Québécois candidates each had a little more than 18 per cent.

Mr. Hébert, mayor of the northern Quebec town of Dolbeau-Mistassini, said the NDP came in second last time because at the start of the 2015 campaign, the NDP was the front-runner nationally and had won 59 seats in the province in 2011. But now the Liberals are in power, and Mr. Trudeau is a popular figure nationally and in Quebec, he said, while predicting the NDP will not be able to perform well enough to win the riding.

Mr. Hébert added that the residents of Lac-Saint-Jean, would like to elect someone who will sit on the government benches, giving the riding more influence than electing someone who will be an opposition backbencher.

“The population will vote for the one who will be on the government [side],” said Mr. Hébert.

Former Liberal candidate Sabin Simard, who ran unsuccessfully in the last election, said he’s not running again, but predicted that the riding will go Liberal in the byelection because the party won more seats than any other party in the last federal election, and Mr. Trudeau is more popular than other party leaders.

Mr. Simard said federal Quebec Liberal MPs are holding their caucus retreat in the riding Aug. 30 and 31, and it will give the Liberals more profile in the riding. Prime Minister Trudeau also spent two days in the riding meeting with people last month.

Mr. Simard, now the local riding association president, told The Hill Times the last date to enter the nomination contest was two weeks ago, and only two candidates are running for the nomination.

Braeden Caley, senior director of communications for the Liberal Party told The Hill Times last week that the party had not yet set a nomination date.

Mr. Lebel was first elected in a byelection in 2007 in what was then the riding of Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, after it being held by the Bloc Québécois since 1993. Amid boundary changes over the years, a separate riding known as Lac-Saint-Jean existed along side this one for many decades and it was held by the Bloc from 1991 until being merged with other ridings for the 2004 election.

The Lac-Saint-Jean riding was recreated in time for the 2015 election, combining the former ridings of Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean and Jonquière-Alma.

Conservative MP Gérard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que.) told The Hill Times the party has not chosen its candidate yet, but will elect one in the coming weeks. He said the party has reached out to certain candidates to run in this riding and some have approached the party, but he declined to share names. Mr. Deltell said that despite the Conservatives’ recent success in this riding, it will not take anything for granted in the byelection.

“I got elected with a big majority, but I never take anything for granted,” he said, adding that Quebec Conservative MPs are holding their caucus meeting in mid-September in Lac-Saint-Jean.

Ms. Dallaire, a psychologist who’s again seeking the NDP nomination for Lac-Saint-Jean, said she lost the riding last time by a small margin and is confident that she would win in the byelection. She conceded that the Liberals are in power and will put in a lot of resources to win. As well, she said the Conservatives have a big election machine in the riding, as proven by their last four wins.

But she pointed out that the riding has not elected a Liberal since 1980, and after having a Conservative MP for the last decade, residents there want change.

“[The Liberals are] putting in a lot of effort to win, [but] there’s no Liberal tradition in Lac-Saint-Jean,” she said. “It’s been a very long time since we had a Liberal MP [in this riding], I was a very little girl at that time. [Constituents in the new riding are] looking for a new person.”

An NDP spokesman told The Hill Times that the party has not fixed a nomination date, and as of last week, Ms. Dallaire was the only declared candidate.

Pollster Greg Lyle of Innovative Research said although the constituents of Lac-Saint-Jean have not elected a Liberal candidate in a long time, this time could be different. He cited Liberals’ success in 2015, when they won 40 of Quebec’s 78 seats. Mr. Lyle, however, said it would be an uphill battle for the Grits to go from third place to first in this riding.

“For the Liberals to get from 18 per cent to win will be pretty remarkable, especially in a midterm,” Mr. Lyle said.

Mr. Lyle said the challenge for the Conservatives is that their outgoing MP was a strong local candidate, and it remains to be seen if they can find someone else as popular.

The NDP is currently in the process of replacing a Quebec-based leader, Tom Mulcair (Outremont, Que.), and it’s unknown how well known or popular his replacement will be in Quebec, Mr. Lyle noted. That leadership contest is a four-way race between MPs Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques, Que.), Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.), and Niki Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man.), and also Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh.

“It really is a test for all three of those parties,” Mr. Lyle.

He also said that the Bloc Québécois has not done well in recent election, but is still a force to be reckoned with. Mr. Lyle said much depends on the campaign performance of the sovereigntist party.

In the Stephen Harper cabinet, Mr. Lebel served as Quebec lieutenant, and up until the Conservative Party leadership election served as the interim deputy leader.

Prior to Mr. Lebel, Lac-Saint-Jean was a strong Bloc Québécois stronghold. Since its creation going back to 1924, the riding—where more than 98 per cent of the population’s mother tongue is French—has undergone numerous boundary and name changes. Lucien Bouchard represented this riding between 1988 and 1996, as a Progressive Conservative, then Independent, and then Bloc MP. Later, he left federal politics to lead the Parti Québécois. After Mr. Bouchard, two Bloc MPs, Stéphan Tremblay and Sébastien Gagnon, held the riding.

The last time the Liberals won this riding was in the 1980 election. The party held this riding between 1968 and 1984, with Marcel Lessard and Pierre Gimaïel as MPs.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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