The Quebec Election: A Primer 

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has a strong record on the economy battling a mood for change among Quebec voters.
iPolitics, Matthew Usherwood photo

Anyone who has ever covered Quebec politics knows that its byzantine loyalties, grudges, affiliations and hidden agendas can take years to decode. Luckily for our readers, veteran journalist and author of several books on Quebec politics Graham Fraser, having recently retired as federal Official Languages Commissioner, is free to provide his insight and expertise.


Graham Fraser 

Every election tells a story. And every political party strives to control the narrative of that story. The Quebec election, scheduled for October 1, is no exception.

Fifteen years in power—with the exception of an 18-month interlude from September 2012 to April 2014 when the Parti Québécois was in office—makes the Liberals vulnerable to one of the most effective and time-honoured election messages: Time for a change. On the other hand, the economic threats from the Trump administration suggest an equally proven counter-strategy: Safe hands in troubled times.

The remarkable thing about this election, however, is that for the first time since 1970, Quebec independence will not be on the ballot. Premier Philippe Couillard has been presiding over a successful economy, with record low unemployment—5.4 per cent in June, lower than Ontario at 5.9 per cent, below the national average at 6 per cent, and just above British Columbia at 5.2 per cent. This year, 80 per cent of Quebecers have access to a family physician, compared to 70 per cent four years ago. After years of deficit, the government balanced the books for the fourth consecutive year in 2018 and presented plans to reduce the province’s debt by $2 billion a year, while lowering taxes for small businesses and home buyers.

The Quebec economy grew by 3 per cent in 2017, the strongest growth in nearly 20 years, while adding some 225,000 jobs since the Liberals re-gained office in 2014. In terms of economic growth and managing the fiscal framework, the Liberals under Couillard have a very positive narrative going into the election.

Nevertheless, voters are notoriously ungrateful creatures, and tend not to vote on the basis of past achievements but rather choose visions for the future. Moreover, embarrassments accumulate over the years, and while everyone remembers the scandals identified in the Charbonneau commission inquiry into corruption in the construction industry, people forget it was named in 2011, three years before Couillard was elected.

Couillard has had his own embarrassments: awkward legislation banning those from giving or receiving government services from wearing religious garb (patently designed to outflank the opposition), support for a unanimous National Assembly resolution opposing the use of “Bonjour/Hi” by staff in stores greeting customers, the bullying bluster of Health Minister Gaetan Barrette, the stunningly generous settlement with medical specialists and the dead-on-arrival reception by Justin Trudeau of Couillard’s “let’s talk” constitutional proposal.

While his government’s policies have created the healthiest government balance sheets in decades, Couillard’s handling of the ever-sensitive subjects of language, immigration and identity have been either half-hearted or ham-handed. 

As a result, there was a fin-de-régime sense at the end of the spring session of the National Assembly, as some 19 Liberal MNAs—including eight cabinet ministers—announced they would not be running again.

The election seems to be François Legault’s to lose. A series of polls showed his Coalition Avenir Québec in the lead—in early June, Léger found the CAQ at 37 per cent, the Liberals at 28 per cent, the Parti Québécois at 19 per cent and Québec Solidaire at nine per cent; and in mid-June, CROP showed the CAQ with 39 per cent support, the PLQ with 33 per cent, the PQ trailing with 14 per cent, and QS close behind with 11 per cent. Legault spent the spring announcing a number of candidates—some of whom, like former Liberal minister Marguerite Blais, were designed to minimize the fear that he would be a right-wing populist.

The Liberals were not giving up hope; Couillard proudly announced that the president of the campaign will be the high-profile entrepreneur Alexandre Taillefer, and he succeeded in attracting Marwah Rizqy, an impressive tax expert that the federal Liberals had hoped to recruit, to be a candidate in the safe Montreal seat of Saint-Laurent.

The fruits of austerity also enabled the government to make a series of pre-election funding announcements, ranging from $158 million for sports and recreation—that breaks into a bundle of 231 small announcements, like $800,000 for the construction of an athletic running track in Magog—to $825 million for research and innovation, life sciences and artificial intelligence.

The left-wing Québec Solidaire also made a spring announcement. Buoyed by the victory of one of the leaders of the Printemps érable 2012 student protests, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, in a by-election in 2017, it proudly presented another star candidate, former La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal. Marissal will be running against PQ leader Jean-François Lisée in the East End Montreal riding of Rosemont. However, the launch was marred by reports that Marissal had met with members of Justin Trudeau’s PMO to discuss a possible job. He was taken aback by the news, lied about it, and had to apologize: hardly an ideal way to enter politics.

The context is very different from recent elections. The fact that Quebec sovereignty will not be a ballot question is not unrelated to the fact that a turning point in the 2014 campaign was when media magnate and star PQ candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau pumped his fist as he called ‘‘to make Quebec a country’’, as leader Pauline Marois stood behind him smiling and leading the applause. From that defining moment, support for the PQ immediately began to drop.

Marois was defeated, and Péladeau’s leadership did not survive the break-up of his marriage to Quebec entertainment star Julie Snyder. Lisée, the Machiavellian long-time PQ strategist now leading the party into his first election, has promised that, if elected, there will not be a referendum in the subsequent mandate.

This, of course, was the promise that split the party in 1984 when René Lévesque made the same commitment—resulting in one-third of his cabinet slamming the door. This time, the departing dean of the National Assembly, François Gendron, a member of the National Assembly since 1976, vented his frustration at the party’s decision not to promote its raison d’être and emphasizing instead the nationalist discontent over immigration and identity. According to the polls, this has not helped move the PQ up from third place.

Nor has Lisée’s attempt to overcome his lack of personal popularity by naming Véronique Hivon as his deputy leader, and touring the province with her over the summer in a mini-bus with the slogan “Un État fort au service des gens” (a strong state serving the people)—and Hivon’s image alongside his on the side of the bus, as if they were running for president and vice-president.

And so, who is François Legault, and why is his party leading in the polls?

Legault emphasizes that he is a businessman, and makes this a central part of his appeal. Indeed, after training and working as an accountant, he founded Air Transat, leaving the company in 1997 after a quarrel with one of his partners. But he is no newcomer to Quebec politics. First elected for the Parti Québécois in 1998, he served as minister of Industry and Commerce, Education and Health, as well as opposition critic for the economy and finance.

He left the PQ in 2009, and created the CAQ as a conservative, pro-business vehicle that acknowledged, however awkwardly, that Quebec independence was not about to happen. In 2012, he said he would vote No if there were another referendum, but Liberals have always challenged his attachment to the country, with Couillard saying acidly that Legault “tolerates” Canada.

When asked about his commitment to Canada in May, Legault stumbled, saying “I am very proud to be Québécois, and Canada, well, I have reconciled myself with Canada, I am comfortable with Canada, and I hope that Quebec does more business with Canada.”

Despite his business background, there has always been a harsh nationalist streak to Legault’s politics. At his very first political speech, when he was nominated as a star PQ candidate in 1998, he told his riding association members that he had been raised in Montreal’s West Island among the English, “and I hate them as much as you do.” 

It was an ugly revelation that I have never forgotten.

It is a nasty streak that has emerged in his party’s immigration policies. Legault has claimed that immigrants will have to pass a test in order to be able to stay in Quebec—a promise that would be difficult to implement and even less likely to survive a Charter challenge. As the election draws closer, he has been softening his more aggressive positions, adopting what Le Devoir columnist Michel David called “un délicat recentrage”, softening the party’s position on Quebec’s public child care system, reaching out to teachers, and pulling back from his challenge to the unions.

At the same time, the party has issued strict orders to candidates who are not already Members of the National Assembly to keep silent on policy issues. Legault remembers all too clearly the gaffes that can grab headlines and doom populist parties. It is all an effort to move to the centre, to reassure voters who are tired of the Liberals but not angry, and convince them, as one of his mantras puts it, that “Québec peut faire mieux,” Quebec can do better. The elements for a contest over the election narrative are in place: a strong economy threatened by uncertainty, the fear of immigrants and refugees, the need for a strong state, and a left-wing alternative.

It remains to be seen whose story will prevail.  

Graham Fraser is the author of two national political bestsellers, René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in Power, and Playing for Keeps: The Making of the Prime Minister, 1988, as well as Sorry, I Don’t Speak French. He served as Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages from 2006-2016, and is now affiliated with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.