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Tapping into pandemic rage, upstart Quebec Conservative Party leader surges in the polls

Éric Duhaime’s Conservative Party of Quebec is rising in the polls and gaining new members, largely by opposing public-health restrictions.  People who know him say he’s a keen political operator, but they wonder whether he can maintain that momentum until the fall election.

But some wonder if former shock-jock Éric Duhaime can maintain momentum until fall election

Conservative Party of Quebec Leader Éric Duhaime is gaining support in opinion polls while other opposition parties stagnate. (Radio-Canada)

The leader of the Conservative Party of Quebec, Éric Duhaime, is basking in the glow of poll results this week that show continuing steady gains for his party and place him as the second-most-popular party leader in Quebec.

Duhaime was elected leader of the party last April. The party, nearly dead not long ago, now counts 52,000 members — more than any other provincial party in Quebec.

To his detractors, Duhaime — a former "shock jock" radio host who's quickly gained attention as a party leader by condemning most public-health restrictions — is too tightly connected to the radical anti-vaccine movement to achieve widespread success.

But people who know Duhaime told CBC he's a brilliant political strategist with a particular gift for communicating.

Former Liberal deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau worked with Duhaime as his co-host on Quebec City radio station FM93. 

"Éric Duhaime, when he became leader last year, found himself with a party that was unknown in Quebec with barely any members," Normandeau told CBC in an interview.

Former Quebec Liberal Party deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau, pictured here with Éric Duhaime when they were co-hosts of a popular Quebec City radio program, said Duhaime's abrupt political rise stands to shake up what had been looking like a cakewalk election for the Coalition Avenir Québec next fall. (Radio-Canada)

"In very little time, he created 'the Duhaime effect' — the conditions to channel the anger and frustration of a significant portion of the electorate. It's enormous," Normandeau said.

Duhaime was an adviser to former Canadian Alliance Party leader Stockwell Day when Day was running for leadership of the federal party in the early 2000s.

Day said it would be a huge mistake for Duhaime's political opponents to underestimate him.

"Be afraid. Be very afraid," he said.

"As a politician, if you're on the other side of him: you should be afraid that he will be able to communicate his message better than you communicate yours," said Day.

"He has the ability to sense and then crystallize what matters most to people."

No stranger to controversy

The Conservative Party of Quebec held a convention last fall and adopted a platform focused mostly on traditional fiscal conservatism. 

Duhaime favours more private intervention in health care, and he wants to reopen oil and gas exploration in Quebec.  He's generally for less government and less red tape. 

It's a pretty straightforward conservative document, with no hint of the string of controversies that Duhaime has been involved with in his 10 years as a radio host in Quebec City, where he was known for frequently saying outrageous things.

Éric Duhaime says being a party leader is different from being a radio host, and now instead of of polarizing people he's trying to unite them. (Radio-Canada)

He downplayed sexual assault and Islamophobia. He suggested that only those who pay taxes should have the right to vote. He once criticized Premier François Legault for reading too many books.

In an interview with CBC this week, Duhaime said things are different now.

"When you're a host of a radio show, the provocation and the debates are part of your daily job. You're trying to make sure that people listening are reacting," Duhaime said.

"Now that I'm in politics, I'm trying to unite people and trying to find a middle ground, so obviously my role has changed."

"It was good for our ratings. In politics, it's not that good. So I'll have to be more cautious with that," he said.

Normandeau acknowledged this will be a big challenge for Duhaime.

"If I had one criticism, I'd say sometimes he's not nuanced enough," she said.

"He has this propensity to add fuel to the fire. Often his very, very scathing positions tend to polarize people," she said.

"He's a guy with ideas, but sometimes they're crazy ideas," said Joanne Marcotte, who used to work with Duhaime when they were both advisers to l'Action Democratique du Québec leader Mario Dumont in the early 2000s.

"Sometimes he just needs someone to say to him, 'You're having a bit too much fun with that,'" Marcotte said.

"I think he's matured a lot," she said. "I think he's now a real party leader."

'Who is the real Éric Duhaime?'

Former senator and journalist André Pratte is one of several columnists in Quebec who's been sounding alarm bells about Duhaime.

Pratte doesn't believe Duhaime can just write off his years of  spewing vitriol on the radio.

"I'm a bit suspicious as to who is the real Éric Duhaime," Pratte told CBC in an interview.

"He has this sort of habit of saying something outrageous and then backtracking a couple of days after that and saying. 'Well, that's not exactly what I meant.'"

"He can't simply dismiss everything that he did in his previous life and say, 'Well, that was just for show,'" Pratte said.

"He needs to take responsibility for what he said. It was significant. It had a huge impact in Quebec City." 

The vaccination question

Pratte said Duhaime's political success is largely due to his courting of the so-called "anti-vax" movement.

He described Duhaime's position on vaccination  as "ambiguous, to say the least."

Duhaime has repeatedly railed against provincial public-health measures, comparing Quebec to a "dictatorship."

Éric Duhaime's candidate in the current Marie-Victorin byelection, actress Anne Casabonne, left, is known for an infamous rant against COVID-19 vaccines on social media that cost her acting and sponsorship jobs. (Parti Conservateur du Quebec)

His candidate in the current Marie-Victorin byelection, actress Anne Casabonne, infamously referred to the COVID-19 vaccine in a Facebook post as a "pile of shit."

"I'm not anti-vaccine. I'm double-vaccinated myself," he said. 

"I'm a guy, though, who's always been in favour of freedom of choice. I believe that every single individual in Canada and in Quebec has a right to decide what to inject or not within his body," he said.

WATCH | Duhaime criticizes Quebec's vaccination campaign:

Éric Duhaime's stance on vaccine mandates

7 months ago
Duration 0:59
Conservative Party of Quebec leader Éric Duhaime says all individuals have a right to decide ‘what to inject or not’ in their body.

"The government has been putting so much pressure on people to get vaccinated, and they feel that they're pushed and they're bullied. I don't think it's the right approach," Duhaime said.

Pratte believes Duhaime has linked himself too closely to anti-vax extremists. 

"What will become of Duhaime and his party if there are no lockdowns and vaccines? What will he talk about?" Pratte said.

"Once the pandemic is over, his challenge is to find another theme that will motivate his base and allow him to enlarge that base."

Duhaime a 'blind spot' for CAQ

Even Pratte acknowledges that Duhaime has now emerged as the main political threat to Premier François Legault.

"For the moment, he's the only threat to Mr. Legault," Pratte said.

A Leger Marketing poll this week showed Duhaime's party in third place, with 14 per cent support. That may not seem like much, but while other opposition parties are stagnant in the polls and the governing CAQ is in slight decline, Duhaime's Conservatives are up nine per cent since December.

Legault still enjoys widespread support, but in the Leger poll, Duhaime came in second behind Legault when respondents were asked who would make the best premier.

"The only party that that is increasing in popularity is the Conservative Party of Mr. Duhaime," Pratte said.

Normandeau said Duhaime's Conservatives are now in the CAQ's "blind spot," and the government should be concerned. 

"He doesn't look like a politician. He's this guy in jeans, very cool. He even looks harmless," Normandeau said.

"But you have to be wary of him because he has a way of very quickly creating a bond with voters. He talks like a regular person and doesn't hide behind grand theories."

"He has a personal chemistry that is attractive to people, regardless of their political affiliation,"  Stockwell Day said.

"He'll debate you fiercely, but if you want to dislike him, you'd really have to work at it," said Day.

François Legault is taking notice.

"I told you this race was going to get tighter, and I was right," Quebec's premier told reporters at the National Assembly earlier this week when asked about Duhaime's performance in the polls.

"I'm taking nothing for granted," he said.

Normandeau said Duhaime's surge shakes up what was looking to be a cakewalk election for Legault later this year.

"Politics is not a long calm river," said Normandeau. "This next election will be very interesting."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Rukavina

Journalist

Steve Rukavina has been with CBC News in Montreal since 2002. In 2019, he won a RTDNA award for continuing coverage of sexual misconduct allegations at Concordia University. He's also a co-creator of the podcast, Montreapolis. Before working in Montreal he worked as a reporter for CBC in Regina and Saskatoon. You can reach him at stephen.j.rukavina@cbc.ca.

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