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Bloc Québécois’ division helping make Quebec most ‘critical’ battleground for 2019: Greg Lyle

By Laura Ryckewaert      

A new Quebec-centric party, Québec debout, is planning to run a full slate of candidates in the province in 2019, in direct competition for the traditional Bloc Québécois base.

Martine Ouellet resigned as leader of the Bloc Québécois as of June 11, with MP Mario Beaulieu, centre, taking over as interim leader. Former Bloc interim leader Rhéal Fortin is now interim leader of the new Québec debout, which plans to run a full slate in Quebec in 2019. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade and Sam Garcia
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Upheaval within the Bloc Québécois, and the emergence of the new Québec debout party from its defectors, are helping make Quebec a “critical” battleground for 2019, says pollster Greg Lyle, and the province presents the “most interesting dynamic in the next election right now.”

“In the past, people said, ‘Well, we have to watch the 905 [the Greater Toronto Area], because the 905 is going to make or break the government. In this case, I think Quebec’s going to make or break it,” said Mr. Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research Group.

“The 905 will be critical for the Tories to overtake the Liberals. But the way that the Liberals hold on to [a] majority is in Quebec.”

It takes 170 seats to win a majority government federally; the Liberals currently hold 183 seats. At present, Mr. Lyle said many expect the Liberals to “likely” lose six seats in the Atlantic region and all four seats in Alberta, and said he’s “pretty sure they’re going to lose four seats between the B.C. and Toronto suburbs.” That’s an estimated 14 seats down, and without “some gains in Quebec the Liberals don’t win another majority,” he said.

On June 4, now-former Bloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet announced her resignation, effective June 11, after losing a confidence vote on June 3, with 67 per cent having voted against her leadership. Along with the leadership question, party members also voted on ‘question one,’ on whether the Bloc should focus on supporting Quebec independence and promote it at every opportunity, with 65 per cent voting in favour.

Leader of the Bloc since March 2017, Ms. Ouellet had a tumultuous run. She was described by some as tone deaf and uncompromising in her decision-making, and as too focused on solely using the party as a vehicle to push for Quebec independence. In February, seven of the 10 Bloc Québécois MPs elected in 2015 quit the party, citing Ms. Ouellet’s leadership as the cause, and formed their own parliamentary group—soon after setting the wheels in motion to officially form a new party, the Québec debout.

Two of those seven MPs returned to the Bloc fold last week in light of Ms. Ouellet’s resignation, but the other five remain committed to getting the new Québec debout in fighting shape for 2019.

Those five MPs are: interim leader Rhéal Fortin (Rivière-du-Nord, Que.), a former interim leader of the Bloc; Louis Plamondon (Bécancour-Nicolet-Saurel, Que.), the longest-serving MP in the House and an original Bloc member; Monique Pauzé (Repentigny, Que.); Gabriel Ste-Marie (Joliette, Que.); and Luc Thériault (Montcalm, Que.).

Even before this fracturing, the Bloc was far from its heyday in 1993, when the party formed the official opposition after sweeping 54 of Quebec’s then-75 seats. It won 54 seats again in 2004, but plummeted in 2011 when it only managed to snatch four seats, and about 23.4 per cent of the vote, amid the NDP’s ‘Orange wave.’

Former leader Gilles Duceppe resigned after the 2011 election. By 2014, Bloc MP Mario Beaulieu (Le Pointe-de-l’Île, Que.) was leader, but his tenure was also a rocky one with two Bloc MPs quitting the caucus in separate decisions, including the Bloc’s then-House leader, Jean-François Fortin, who later formed the since-defunct Forces et Démocratie party.

Amid these troubles, and with the 2015 election on the horizon, Mr. Beaulieu struck a deal with Mr. Duceppe and relinquished party leadership to him. With Mr. Duceppe at the helm, and a more organized ground game, the party managed to claim 10 seats in Quebec, but nonetheless saw a further decrease in its vote-share, to 19.3 per cent.

As of June 11, Mr. Beaulieu is once again at the Bloc’s helm as interim leader.

Bloc MP Marilène Gill (Manicouagan, Que.) told The Hill Times last week that while “there’ll be a lot of work” to do to be ready for the next federal election, the party is heading into 2019 “with a clear mandate from our members” to push for Quebec’s independence, referring to the recent membership vote on ‘question one.’

The party will wait until after the Oct. 1 provincial election in Quebec to elect a new leader, and plans to run a full slate of candidates in Quebec in 2019.

Québec debout will be running in direct competition with the Bloc next election. Mr. Fortin said his fledgling party intends to run candidates in all 78 ridings in Quebec.

The party is currently in the process of registering with Elections Canada, and has submitted its paperwork, including signatures from 250 members, which the agency is now in the process of verifying. Mr. Fortin said he’s hopeful it’ll be completed within about 60 days. Before the October 2019 election, he said Québec debout will hold an inaugural congress to adopt party statutes and policy planks, and elect a new leader.

While the defection of the founders of Québec debout from the Bloc had much to do with Ms. Ouellet’s leadership, Mr. Fortin said even with her gone, the remaining five MPs are sticking with their new project.

“Quebecers send about $50-billion every year to [the federal] government and they want to make sure that that money is managed according to their interests, their values, and that’s what we want to do,” he said.

Advocating for the interests of Quebecers, but not focusing specifically on pushing for independence, is the “main difference,” between the Bloc and Québec debout, said Mr. Fortin.

“In Quebec right now, nobody decides to attempt a referendum, or whatever procedure, for Quebec being independent. So working to make the promotion of independence in the Parliament now, for me, it doesn’t serve the interests of the Quebecers,” he said, adding though that he personally has “always been a sovereigntist” and “that won’t change.”

The emergence of the new Québec debout party presents a “really interesting” new factor in Quebec, said Mr. Lyle.

“That party has got potential. It doesn’t mean they’ll be able to deliver on that potential, but there are voters looking for them if they can convince voters they’re the real thing,” he said.

“[Voters are] definitely turned off the Bloc right now, I mean you can see that people have moved to undecided. But they are who they are, and they want politicians that represent them and right now they don’t have that. They don’t want to go to parties that conflict with them on nationalism, on culture, and on progressivism, they want to get it all in one place.”

How this new party shapes up will also impact any potential gains to be made by the other federal parties in Quebec as a result of the Bloc’s turmoil.

“If there’s two parties fighting for that vote, then that’ll be really hard for them to win any seats because of the nature of how the first-past-the-post system works. That would probably be very good news for the Liberals…because a very powerful challenger will have divided [the Bloc’s] votes, creating an opportunity for them to win seats with a lower share of the vote,” said Mr. Lyle.

He argued the Conservatives face a steeper path to woo Quebec voters, as they’re seen as non-progressive federalists, and while the NDP aligns better with the traditional Bloc electorate in terms of progressivism, not so on the “culture” factor, especially with new leader, Jagmeet Singh, who wears a turban.

Carl Vallée, a partner with Hatley Strategy Advisors in Montreal and a former federal Conservative staffer, similarly said that for the Liberals, achieving another majority means they “have to make gains here,” and reasoned the “same logic” applies for the Conservatives to form government.

Those two parties are best placed to gain from the Bloc’s collapse, he said, adding he thinks the NDP’s seats in Quebec are also “probably up for grabs” due to a “sense here that the NDP is not very present.”

“Left-leaning Quebecers … have no reason not to vote for Trudeau,” said Mr. Vallée, noting though that the Trans Mountain pipeline debate could change that. Polling has indicated a majority of Quebecers are opposed to the project.

The Conservative Party managed to establish a “base” of support in Quebec under former prime minister Stephen Harper, said Mr. Vallée, which Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) can now expand on with the help of “credible spokespeople” like Conservative MPs Gérard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que.) and Alain Rayes (Richmond-Arthabaska, Que.)—and the party has already been making a “concerted effort” to do so.

Former NDP national director Karl Bélanger, president of the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation, said he thinks the NDP and Conservatives are best placed to gain from a collapse of the Bloc, and that the Liberal Party has already “gained whatever it could gain from former Bloc voters in the last election.”

An interesting test of electoral temperatures in Quebec is coming up later this month, with the Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, Que. by-election on June 18.

Rookie Liberal Denis Lemieux previously held the riding; he resigned in November, citing family reasons. Mr. Lemieux won in 2015 with roughly 31 per cent support, beating out incumbent NDP MP Dany Morin by just 600 votes. The Bloc Québécois’ candidate in 2015 came third in the race with 20.5 per cent support, followed by the Conservative candidate at 16.6 per cent of the vote.

A brand new slate of candidates have put their names forward for the upcoming by-election.

But in a further blow to the Bloc, former interim leader Michel Gauthier has strongly backed the Conservative candidate in Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, and has publicly committed to campaign alongside other federal Conservative candidates in Quebec in 2019.

The Conservative Party is already hard at work wooing Quebec voters. Mr. Scheer appeared on Radio-Canada’s Tout le monde en parl on May 11, getting plenty of positive press as a result. He launched a tour in the province in April, dubbed ‘Listening to Quebecers,’ aimed at helping to shape the party’s platform for 2019.

The party has also been running an ad, ‘En équipe avec les Québécoises et les Québécois,’ on a range of channels all across the province for a couple of weeks, in what amounts to a “fairly extensive ad buy,” said Cory Hann, director of communications for the Conservative Party.

The Liberals are running two radio ads in Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, along with a series of digital ads across the province, said Braeden Caley, communications director for the Liberal Party.

The NDP has also made efforts to appeal to Quebecers, with its entire roster of House officers coming from Quebec, including its parliamentary leader, NDP MP Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques, Que.).

Mylène Dupéré, a senior director with TACT Intelligence-conseil in Montreal and a former federal Liberal staffer, noted the failed Forces et Démocratie effort, and said while Québec debout won’t necessarily have the same fate, they’re facing difficult circumstances in dividing the Bloc base.

She said she thinks the Liberals and Conservatives could both benefit from a collapsed Bloc. While there’s a lot for Quebecers to like about the federal NDP leader, Mr. Singh, “we don’t see him as much.”

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