No more politics as usual in Quebec — and its industrial heartland may be the reason why

A new conservative party is on track to win the Quebec election. It must be appealing to angry voters in a rust-belt, right? Nope. Quebec’s old industrial towns are booming.

A small-business revolution could explain why a new conservative party is on track to win this fall’s election

Drummondville Mayor Alexandre Cusson described his city as a small-business 'paradise.' It’s also becoming a bastion of support for Coalition Avenir Québec. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

On a cloudless Saturday in August, newcomers to Drummondville were treated by the mayor to a tour of the city and a free lunch of the local specialty, poutine. 

One of Drummondville's gleaming red fire trucks was even rolled out for the benefit of the children — and maybe a few adults as well.

Gathered at the picnic tables behind city hall were retirees fleeing the traffic nightmares of Montreal and immigrants drawn by the promise of decent jobs at decent pay.

Othman Bouattour had spent five years living in Edmonton, having trouble making ends meet, when a friend called him in November and told him about this boom town in Quebec.

He packed up the family car and with his wife and two young children drove east for seven days.

"On my first day in Drummondville, I relaxed and walked along the river. On my second day, I found my first job. It was a little magical," said Bouattour, an engineering technician originally from Tunisia.

Quebec's current economic renaissance is usually spoken about in terms of Montreal's hot real-estate market or Quebec City's rock-bottom unemployment rate.

But in between the big cities, places like Drummondville have quietly transformed themselves from dying manufacturing hubs into economic dynamos, helping propel GDP growth in the province to heights unseen in nearly two decades.

These towns and small cities, which make up Quebec's industrial belt, are also emerging as bastions of support for Coalition Avenir Québec, the upstart conservative party that is reshaping politics in the province.

Helène Simard/CBC

An entrepreneur's paradise

In recent election cycles, it has become commonplace to attribute the success of conservative populists to their appeal among the so-called losers of globalization.

U.S. President Donald Trump, it is often pointed out, did well in the Rust Belt states. Ontario Premier Doug Ford was able to count on support in southwestern Ontario. French politician Marine Le Pen has a base in that country's northeast.

What all these places have in common are industrial-based economies struggling to cope in a post-industrial world and politicians have capitalized on the anger of their disaffected populations.

But the CAQ is a different brand of conservative party, less populist, more establishment-friendly.

Though it favours lower immigration rates and is an ardent defender of the secular status quo, the essence of its political project lies elsewhere.

"The entrepreneurial dimension is more important than the identity question," said Frédéric Boily, who has written widely about conservatism in Quebec and is the author of a recent book on the CAQ.

And while the CAQ, too, scores well in manufacturing-intensive areas, it is capitalizing on an altogether different economic phenomenon than what's being experienced in Michigan or Wisconsin or Hamilton.

Quebec's industrial arc — a term coined by economist Mario Polèse — includes roughly three administrative regions: Centre-du-Québec, the Eastern Townships and Chaudière-Appalaches.

At one time this might have counted as Quebec's own rust belt. Drummondville, like many towns in central Quebec and the Eastern Townships, depended on the textile industry through much of the 20th century.

The textile industry was dominant in Drummondville before its collapse in the 1980s. This photograph was taken in 1979. (Henri Rémillard/BANQ)

But by the 1980s, textile jobs were moving overseas and these parts of the province fell on hard times. "Drummondville: a city in agony," read the front page of a 1982 issue of L'Actualité, Quebec's version of Maclean's. Unemployment hit 13 per cent in 1986.

Many of the factories in the industrial arc were owned by anglophones, and as they shuttered in growing numbers, the Parti Québécois was able to lock down a number of ridings.

As the story is told locally, Drummondville pulled itself up by its own bootstraps. It focused its development efforts not on courting big corporations or government support, but on making itself friendly to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

"We are the paradise of SMEs. We're talking about more than 600 businesses here," said Mayor Alexandre Cusson.

"We decided never again to be caught with an economy that wasn't diversified. That's what SMEs allow."

Many of these businesses, moreover, are in the manufacturing sector. They occupy a niche that Polèse calls mid-tech, or mid-level technology: machinery, food, printing, to name just a few examples.

Across the industrial arc, towns like Drummondville, Victoriaville, Granby and Sherbrooke offer entrepreneurs cheap rent and electricity, low business taxes and proximity to Quebec's big cities, not to mention the U.S. border.

"Small and mid-size cities exist for a reason," said Polèse, who is an emeritus professor of urban economics at the L'Institut national de la recherche scientifique, based in Montreal.

"This middle-tech manufacturing would have to be produced somewhere and it just doesn't make sense for manufacturing, which doesn't require PhDs and which takes up a lot of space, to be done in Montreal."

As Quebec's industrial arc embraced its new economic role, employment exploded. The jobless rate in Chaudière-Appalaches is 2.6 per cent. It's 3.9 per cent in the Townships. It dropped to a decade-low 5.3 per cent in Centre-du-Quebéc last year.

Change in fortunes, change in culture

With the change in fortune has come a change in political culture as well.

No longer are workers toiling under anglophone factory bosses. Many, if not most, of the businesses that have sprung up in the industrial arc are owned and operated by francophone Quebecers. Labour relations, for the most part, are harmonious.

"It's an area that's done fairly well, and which depends a lot on trade, so the whole sovereignist thing is more difficult to sell," said Polèse. "You have a very entrepreneurial spirit in much of these towns."

As that entrepreneurial spirit flourished, the fortunes of the PQ deteriorated. At the same time, more business-friendly parties have made gains.

The Action Démocratique du Québec, the CAQ's precursor, saw its support surge here, allowing it to briefly form the Opposition in 2007.

And in the two elections it has contested to date, some of the CAQ's strongest showings have been in the arc.

André Lamontagne won the Drummondville riding of Johnson for the CAQ in 2014. Before that it had been a PQ stronghold. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

If current projections hold, the party could sweep most of the ridings in this part of the province come election day Oct. 1. Polls suggest it's on track to win a majority government.

"What we have in the centre of Quebec are people who are nationalist, people who are entrepreneurs and people who are fed up of the national question," said André Lamontagne, the CAQ's economy critic, who represents the riding of Johnson, which covers parts of Drummondville and the surrounding area.

Aside from falling to the ADQ in 2007, Johnson had been solidly in the PQ column since 1981. But Lamontagne won it by a healthy margin in the last election.

"[Party Leader François] Legault's and the CAQ's outlook is very entrepreneurial. People here can recognize themselves in that," said Lamontagne, who ran several businesses in Montreal before entering politics.

The realignment

The revitalization of the industrial arc is, of course, just one part of the Quebec's political-economic portrait.

Montreal still accounts for a huge share of the province's GDP and remains an important source of support for the incumbent Liberals.

There also exists a "disgruntled periphery," said Polèse. Unemployment, for instance, is 13 per cent in Gaspésie–Îles-de-la-Madeleine.

The PQ, which is facing the prospect of its worst electoral performance ever, still enjoys a measure of popularity in outlying regions, including the Gaspé and the Côte-Nord.

But regardless how the CAQ fares in the election, a deeper realignment appears to be underway in Quebec politics.

It's being driven, in part, by a rising entrepreneurial class that is feeding demand for a stable constitutional status and a smaller role for the state.

If current projections hold, François Legault's party could sweep most of the ridings in Quebec's industrial arc come election day. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

As a result, Quebec politics has slowly moved away from the federalist-sovereigntist divide and toward more conventional left-right political debates.

In Quebec's industrial heartland it is easy to find voters frustrated at the health-care system or worried about the quality of schools or unsure which party represents the best way forward.

But it is hard to come across the angry, dispossessed voters who've fuelled populist upheavals elsewhere. 

"When I arrived here I was surprised to see how many pools and playgrounds there were," Anthony Blondelle said as the picnic behind city hall wrapped up.

Blondelle left northern France last year and has been working as a truck driver in Drummondville ever since.

"I tell my mother and my sister all that time: 'You have to come. It's perfect. There are jobs and opportunities everywhere.' "

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