The man who led the last anglophone revolt against the Quebec Liberal Party says the time has come again for province's English speakers to rethink their electoral options and consider voting for another upstart party: the Coalition Avenir Québec.
Robert Libman's Equality Party made a historic, if short-lived, breakthrough in the Quebec election 1989 by stealing four safe seats from the Liberals while championing the cause of English rights.
Since then, anglophones have reliably supported the pro-Canada Liberals. But they have done so with questionable enthusiasm, as ridings with anglophone populations had some of the lowest turnout rates in the last provincial election.
Liberal Leader Jean Charest has expressed concern about this trend on the campaign trail.
Last week, he spent several days telling English-language media that voters who stay home on election day, Sept. 4, or who vote for the CAQ are effectively supporting another referendum on Quebec's independence.
That was the last straw for Libman. He was already annoyed with what he saw as the Liberals caving to separatist pressure — on the language of education, on commercial signs, and on the ease of obtaining English services at the provincial health-care hotline.
The use of fear scenarios, he said, pushed him over the edge.
"I felt rather insulted. He's very condescending, as if we don't have a choice but to vote Liberal otherwise we risk separation," Libman said. "I think the electorate is a little bit smarter than that."
The anglophone vote represents a significant asset for the Liberals. In 2008, Charest's party won all 24 provincial ridings where anglophones made up more than 10 per cent of the population.
Libman hopes English speakers will vote strategically. He wants them to give the Liberals a jolt — but not in areas where that might help elect members of the more nationalist, pro-independence Parti Québécois.
"Anglophones... should perhaps, in order to send a message to the Liberals, consider voting for the CAQ," said Libman, but "only in areas where there is no danger of splitting the vote and electing the PQ."
The ridings Libman has in mind are largely located in Montreal's west end, with a few more in western Quebec. There are also a handful of ridings where any wavering by anglophone voters could spark big swings in close local races.
A recent byelection offered a vivid illustration of the scenario Libman warned about, in the Liberals' stronghold of Argenteuil in June.
Liberal voters didn't turn out in the same numbers. A few flocked to the new Coalition. And the PQ won the riding.
There is possible irony in Libman's position. The ex-MNA and former mayor of the Montreal Island municipality of Côte Saint-Luc is, after all, encouraging voters to consider supporting a party led by a longtime separatist.
CAQ Leader François Legault, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister and sovereigntist, is promising to never revisit the independence question.
Legault has taken some steps to court the anglophone vote, encouraging those who feel taken for granted by the Liberals or who are tired of ethics scandals to join him instead. He agreed to take part in an English-language debate with Charest on a Montreal radio station, although PQ Leader Pauline Marois turned down the invitation because she said her English wasn't good enough. The party also promises to launch an English version of its website by the end of the week.
The CAQ is not making any promises based on language — and it doesn't plan major changes to the status quo.
It's also betting that by focusing on issues that all Quebecers care about, like stimulating the economy and fighting corruption, anglophone voters might feel comfortable supporting them.