CBC News Federal Election



Playing the Quebec game

By Carolyn Ryan
Supporters of the 'No' side in the Quebec referendum watch results come in at the Montreal campaign headquarters in 1995. (CP Photo/Fred Chartrand)  
The prospect of Quebec leaving the Canadian family is no frivolous matter. The disaffection of sovereigntists in the province is real, as is their determination to form their own nation within North America some day.

However, heading into this campaign, national unity was not a hot-button issue with voters. It was a sleeping giant, if a giant at all. An Ipsos-Reid poll suggested that national unity was an important issue for only three per cent of Quebecers and two per cent of all Canadians.

So what made Paul Martin decide to wake the giant by declaring this "a referendum election" on national sovereignty?

A clue can be found in the same Ipsos-Reid poll, which found that 48 per cent of respondents rated the Liberals as being "best able to keep Canada together," compared to 26 per cent who chose the Conservatives. And, of course, the Liberals would gain by raising the profile of ANY issue in Quebec that could make voters forgive them for the sponsorship scandal of the mid-1990s.

In early December, Leger Marketing pollster Christian Bourque said two-thirds of Quebec voters had put the findings of the Gomery report behind them and might be open to what the Liberals had to say. "Last time, people were ashamed of going out to vote Liberal in 2004," he said. "If the issue the campaign structures itself around is national unity, if these people are motivated to go back to the polls, this will help the Liberals."

That said, here's a summary of how the four main party leaders have chosen to play the Quebec game so far in this campaign.

Paul Martin
Liberal leader Paul Martin  

33.9%; 21 seats.

He can parlay anxiety over the future of Quebec into more votes from "soft" federalist francophones, anglophones and allophone Quebecers who have been leaning away because of the sponsorship scandal and their belief that the Bloc Québécois is a strong voice for Quebec issues in Ottawa.


Dec. 2: The Liberal leader gambled big from the start, choosing to paint the race in Quebec as having the highest possible stakes.
Martin pointed out that the Parti Québécois had declared its intention to unilaterally declare independence after a successful referendum vote on Quebec's future, and that new PQ Leader André Boisclair and BQ Leader Gilles Duceppe had pledged to work toward sovereignty as quickly as possible. "This is really a referendum election, certainly according to the duo of Boisclair and Duceppe. They have clearly said there is a pact between them and the first step is the Jan. 23 election," Martin said. "We will fight to defend Canada. This battle begins now," he told a crowd of Liberals a few days earlier, as the campaign began.

As well as possibly wooing back disgruntled federalist voters in Quebec, Liberal reasoning went, it wouldn't hurt Martin in Ontario to be seen as the leader battling for national unity. Indeed, reporters gave Martin the name Captain Canada, for his Quebec statements as well as his later criticism of the United States on global warming.

Martin and Duceppe
Liberal leader Paul Martin shakes his finger at Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe during the French TV debate in Vancouver, Dec. 15, 2005. (CP Photo/Paul Chiasson)  
Dec. 16: The Captain Canada label emerged again after the first English-language leaders' debate. When a national unity question came up, Martin turned passionate as he cited his credentials as a longtime resident of Quebec and said directly to Duceppe: "I am a Quebecer and you are not going to take my country away from me with some trick, with some ambiguous question… You're not going to win, Mr. Duceppe. I'll tell you that."

Dec. 19: After Conservative Leader Stephen Harper announced a package of measures designed to appeal to Quebec voters, Martin again chose to play the passion card. "We need a strong Quebec, we need strong provinces, but we also need a strong national government, a strong federal government," he said on Dec. 19. "Mr. Harper would simply reduce the role of the federal government to that of a tax collector. Well that is simply not on. That is not how we will build a country that will live up to our hopes and dreams, and it is not how we are going to build the kind of Canada that our children expect."

Dec. 20: The next day, Harper said the Liberals "can't wait to see a PQ government [in Quebec] so that they can stand up for federalism and fight the separatists." Martin's team erupted, with Stephane Dion demanding an apology not only to Martin but to every candidate and campaign worker in Quebec. Martin later said the fight against the forces of separatism is "part of my DNA," and suggested Harper withdraw his remark as a courtesy. "As different as our views might be, I would never for a moment suggest that Stephen Harper would prefer for partisan political reasons to see a separatist victory," he said.

Ongoing: The Liberals are also trying to appeal to the 700,000 Quebecers from immigrant and visible minority communities, who traditionally are strong Liberal supporters, by nominating more than a dozen candidates from those communities and encouraging them to speak out against sovereignty. "People flew from dictatorships, from poverty, from instability, and now they are opting for an option that will put families at war?" Maro Akoury, the Lebanese-born Liberal candidate in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, told CBC News in Montreal. "The campaign is about letting people know that the issue of sovereignty, the issue of separation, is outdated. It is a fantasy."


Dec. 7: The "referendum election" statement was greeted by almost universally raised eyebrows among political pundits and editorialists. A sample from a Toronto Star editorial: "A win for Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québécois will be seen as a repudiation of Canada, Martin warned. By whom? The Bloc became Canada's Official Opposition in 1993. Quebecers did not reject Canada two years later, in the 1995 referendum. … Let's not drown out Santa's sleigh bells with apocalyptic talk of national ruin if the Liberals lose big. Politicians' futures may be riding on this election. Canada's future is not."

Dec. 7: Current Liberal Transport Minister Jean Lapierre was once a Bloc MP, and that party wasn't about to let voters forget it. Duceppe's party released a videotape from the early 1990s showing Lapierre rallying the separatist troops, giving advice about how to win a fight against the federalists. "It is going to be a campaign of despair from the other side," warned Lapierre, who jumped from the Liberals to the Bloc in 1990 after the failure of the Meech Lake accord.

Dec. 16: Perhaps riding high on his passionate performance earlier in the night, Martin made a rash statement on the night of the first English leaders' debate: "I'm ready to meet [Duceppe] on every street corner, in every city and in every town and village in Quebec." But when Duceppe eagerly accepted the apparent offer and publicly asked Martin to set a date for a one-on-one debate, Liberals said Martin was too busy running a national campaign. He would instead wait to face Duceppe in the second round of national leaders' debates in mid-January.

The flipflop let Duceppe taunt Martin repeatedly as he campaigned through Quebec, portraying the prime minister as afraid to face him one on one. "That vanishing dot in the distance? That used to be the PM's butt," Maclean's columnist Paul Wells wrote in his blog. Making matters worse for the Liberals, Harper stepped into the breach on Dec. 20, offering to debate Duceppe and present the federalist view of Quebec's future. Duceppe at first said he was considering the offer, then declared there was no point in having a debate without Martin there.

Dec. 19: Quebec's Liberal premier, Jean Charest, said Harper's promise to correct the fiscal imbalance between the federal government and the provinces, as well as give Quebec a greater voice in international bodies such as UNESCO, was "an encouraging sign" and "goes in the direction Quebec wants." Charest insisted that doesn't mean he is taking sides in the federal campaign, though, hinting he would be open to similar pledges from other federalist parties.

Dec. 20: Martin was caught in an embarrassing reversal after he criticized one Harper proposal in particular. After Harper pledged to let Quebec have its own voice at UNESCO meetings, Martin dismissed the plan. "We are one country," he said on Dec. 19. "We speak with one voice internationally, not two and not 10."

The Liberal leader said something very different just 19 months earlier, though.

"Quebec should not only be seated with us at the table at UNESCO, but it must be able to speak when we discuss things like cultural diversity," Martin said in May 2004, in a speech leading up to the last federal election. "Quebec is the cradle of the French language and culture in North America. It is one of the pillars of the French fact in Canada and in the world. It should be able to express itself on the major subjects that affect it directly. The door should be wide open to it, without ambiguity. And it will be."

 Gilles Duceppe
  Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe


48.9%; 54 seats.

His party breaks through the psychological barrier of 50 per cent of popular support in Quebec, by successfully demonizing the Liberals and dismissing the value of voting for any other party. Picking up an even larger share of Quebec's 75 seats would be nice too.


Dec. 4: Boisclair of the Parti Québécois sent very public warm best wishes as his federal counterpart's campaign began, saying: "I'm very happy to be working closely with Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois. We're a big, close family." Boisclair's party is riding high in the polls provincially because of the unpopularity of some of the tough decisions made by Charest's Liberal government. A provincial election is expected in 2007.

Dec. 5: Duceppe too scoffed at the "referendum election" warning from Martin, then playfully took it to its logical conclusion. If Bloc MPs win more than 50 per cent of the popular vote on Jan. 23, he said, Martin should therefore be willing to open talks about Quebec's future. "Is Paul Martin trying to tell us that if we win the election [in Quebec] he will negotiate sovereignty with Jean Charest?" he said. "If he believes this is a referendum election, will he say that the day after a Bloc victory?"

Ongoing: Duceppe is known for his punchy one-liners and ability to strike back quickly at his opponents' statements and arguments. That talent has allowed him to shine in both English and French during this campaign. During the English debate, Duceppe quickly turned a question on western alienation to his advantage, saying, "The West wants in, and Quebec wants out." After Martin said he would face Duceppe anywhere on national unity, Duceppe began offering daily invitations to debate the Liberal leader throughout Quebec, repeatedly saying, "Be my guest!" He also took aim at Harper for distancing himself from the sovereigntist party after co-operating with the Bloc to bring down the government, saying: "They all want to go to bed with us, but they don't want to marry us."

Bloc Qu�b�cois leader Gilles Duceppe arrives for a campaign rally in Montreal on Sunday, Dec. 18. (CP Photo/Ryan Remiorz)  
Ongoing: The Bloc also strove to include more candidates from immigrant and allophone communities leading up to the Jan. 23 election. An example is Apraham Niziblian, a young Armenian Quebecer who grew up in a federalist family. "It's not an anti-Canada movement or anti-English anymore," he said of his decision to run for the BQ in the riding of Bourassa. "It's a pro-Quebec thing, for the Quebec people we see that our interests are better represented by our own." The Bloc is also targeting the votes of 75,000 Quebecers with Haitian roots, most of whom are francophones living in Montreal. "I think there is this nostalgia, this political nostalgia of fighting for one's nation," said Mahalia Verna, a Haitian Quebecer. "And I think a lot of Haitians identify with that desire to be a sovereign state."


Dec. 7: Duceppe has to scold some Bloc candidates who were downplaying their link to sovereignty as the campaign began. For example, Christian Ouellet, who is trying to unseat a Liberal incumbent in Brome-Missisquoi, told the Globe and Mail that he wanted to be elected to tackle economic issues and corruption in government. "When the time comes to defend sovereignty, I will defend it," he said. "But I am not defending it now during this campaign. I don't have time. I've got too many things to do."

Dec. 16: Alert reporters pointed out a major inconsistency in Duceppe's pronouncements during the English leaders' debate. At two separate points, Duceppe dismissed Harper's plan to hold a free vote in the House of Commons in an attempt to overturn same-sex marriage. "It's not worth revisiting issues that have already been decided by a free vote," Duceppe insisted. Except when it comes to having repeated sovereignty referendums until you get the result you want, perhaps.

Dec. 21: After earlier taunting Martin for backing out of a debate, Duceppe sounded a little less than convincing about his reasons for doing the same thing when it came to facing off with Harper. "When we took vote in the House, it was a motion of non-confidence against the Liberals because they didn't have the moral authority to govern," Duceppe told reporters. "So having a debate without the party accused of not having the moral authority to govern -- I mean, this is no debate."

Stephen Harper
Conservative leader Stephen Harper.  


8.8%; no seats.


The Conservatives win some seats in Quebec, or at least significantly increase their percentage of the popular vote in the province that has been nearly a wasteland for any party but the Liberals and BQ since the 1993 election won by the Liberals under Chrétien.


Nov. 30: Harper early positioned himself as trying to slip down the middle, telling federalists that they don't have to vote for the Bloc to make sure Quebec's interests are protected by a party with a clean record in the province. "All the BQ and Mr. Martin want to talk about is referendum, a referendum that nobody wants and that we're not having," he said. "Let's not forget the reason we've seen the rise of sovereignty is because of the corruption of the Liberal party. … I think Quebec is entitled to a more substantial debate about how we can make federalism work and how we can advance the interests of Quebecers in this country."

Dec. 6: New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, a Quebec-born francophone, took a punch at the Liberals while endorsing Harper's Conservatives in the opening days of the campaign. "I do not accept the proposition of the Liberals that only they can keep this country together," Lord said. "They're like pyromaniacs with the matches and gasoline in their hands. They light the fire and then they say, 'Oh, let us put it out.' The fact is they created the problem in Quebec, and I think we need a fresh new approach to Canadian unity that will come from the Conservative Party of Canada."

Dec. 19: Harper leaped full force into the Quebec voting market by promising Quebec more powers and independence at home and on the international scene. Among other things, he said he would start talks to correct the fiscal imbalance that has long been a major Quebec irritant, allow Quebec to play a role with international bodies such as UNESCO and lessen federal spending powers while recognizing greater autonomy for all the provinces. "The Liberals offer a great showdown that they may or may not win," he said. "We don't need a showdown. We need to work together."

Dec. 20: Taking a risk because debating in French is not his strong suit, Harper offered to debate Duceppe on national unity since Martin won't do so. The move would position the Conservatives as a valid force of federalism in the province.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper climbs aboard a tractor while campaigning on a farm in Chatham, Ontario, Dec. 21. (CP Photo/Tom Hanson)  
Dec. 21: Harper scoffed at the suggestion he owes Martin an apology for saying Liberals "can't wait to see a PQ government," pointing out that Martin has made remarks about the Conservatives getting into bed with the separatists. "This accusation I've made against Mr. Martin arises because it is Mr. Martin who's talked continually about a referendum and about having a PQ government in Quebec," said Harper. "I don't go around demanding apologies. I can take a punch."


Nov. 30: Harper's team arrayed Conservative candidates from Quebec City behind him as he prepared to make a policy announcement, but he didn't introduce them as is traditional at such events. When reporters asked who they were, he said he didn't have the names but that his "staff" would supply them. The incident was seen as an acknowledgement that they had little chance of winning anyway. Since that day, Harper has been careful not to repeat the mistake.

Dec. 8: The Globe and Mail reported that Conservative candidates in Quebec have been complaining they are not getting enough resources to run their campaigns. "There is a conspiracy theory being widely circulated among Quebec party members that alleges the Conservatives are deliberately ignoring the province because they don't want to bleed nationalist support away from the Bloc Québécois," the newspaper writes. "The more seats won by the Bloc, the theory suggests, the fewer seats won by Liberals -- which would improve Conservative chances of forming the next federal government." The national campaign co-chair for the Conservatives, Michael Fortier, and other party officials deny the allegations.

Dec. 19: After Harper promised to give Quebecers a greater voice on the international stage, an old statement emerges that suggests a contradiction. "I'm a strong supporter of provincial rights and provincial autonomy within the Constitution, but you can't be mixing up your foreign affairs with your provincial affairs," Conservative foreign affairs critic Stockwell Day said in September 2004. "When you appear to be saying that a province is speaking for a country, you're going to create confusion, so it's time to clear up the confusion."

Dec. 21: Boisclair rejects the Conservative proposals for Quebec despite the fact that they are just what his party has long and loudly been seeking from the federal government. "Quebecers won't accept a settlement of the question of fiscal imbalance [if it means] turning their back on the question of abortion, of [same-sex] marriage, of gun control, of the Kyoto Protocol, as Mr. Harper is proposing to do," he told reporters. "That would be a too-high price to pay for Quebecers."

Dec. 21: As of the end of this day, the Conservative party website was still listing no nominated candidates in 11 of the 75 ridings in the province, just the optimistic notation "Coming Soon." By comparison, the Green Party of Canada's website showed only four Quebec ridings without candidates.

Jack Layton
NDP leader Jack Layton.  


4.6%; no seats.


The NDP leader maintains the party's level of support in Quebec, even in the face of federalist sympathizers bleeding away to the Liberals to stop an alleged separatist threat.


Dec. 7: Layton, who was born in Quebec and grew up in the town of Hudson, made a national unity pitch while laying out his party's accountability platform in Montreal. "When you're a federal politician, doing what's right in the province of Quebec includes making a basic commitment to respect," he said. "Respect for the unique culture and linguistic character of this province. Respect for its autonomy and jurisdiction. Respect for the values that the people of Quebec hold dear – and in common with Canadians across this country."

Dec. 18: Campaigning in Castlegar, B.C., Layton warned voters that re-electing Liberals would send a message to Quebec "that Canadians frankly aren't very concerned about the Liberals' attempt to buy the support of Quebecers in a corrupt fashion." He suggested that voting Liberal would thus damage national unity.

Dec. 21: Layton positioned his party as taking the high road when it comes to the Quebec fracas. "Political games are being played with the future of our country," he warned. "The political temperature is being raised… I don't find it helpful to have this very public sparring and beating of the chest and this very conflict-oriented approach to dealing with the future of our country."


Dec. 7: Layton belatedly said he had reversed his position on the Clarity Act, the Chretien-era legislation setting out rules for future Quebec votes on independence. He would no longer repeal the act, he told reporters in Quebec: "It follows directly from the principles laid out by the Supreme Court and has been broadly accepted across the spectrum as a basis for proceeding."

Only seven months previously, Layton had repeated his past declaration that an NDP government would tear up the Clarity Act. "People don't care about clarity," he said at the time. "They care about smog warnings." Layton's stance against the act had irritated NDP candidates running in the June 2004 election.

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