Much ado about a seat in Quebec: The fight for Marie-Victorin gathers steam

The date of the pending byelection for the provincial seat of Marie-Victorin still hasn't been set, but for the major parties and their candidates, the race for what's long been a Parti Québécois stronghold is already in full swing.

Winner will only serve as MNA briefly, but byelection could provide momentum for fall election

Claude Pinard, who has lived in his home in Longueuil, Que., for almost 50 years, has voted PQ in the past, but he signed the nomination papers for Québec Solidaire's 22-year-old first-time candidate. 'I think the Parti Québécois has had its day,' he said. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The date of a byelection for the provincial seat of Marie-Victorin still hasn't been set, but for the major parties and their candidates, the race for what's long been a Parti Québécois stronghold is in full swing.

That's why Québec Solidaire's Shophika Vaithyanathasarma is braving a biting wind, walking up and down St-Georges Street in Longueuil, on Montreal's South Shore, clipboard and pamphlets in hand.

The 22-year-old mathematics student is hoping to fill the seat left vacant by Catherine Fournier, the former Parti Québécois MNA who was elected in a 2016 byelection but left the party in 2019 to sit as an independent. Fournier quit provincial politics when she became mayor of Longueuil last November.

Québec Solidaire candidate Shophika Vaithyanathasarma ran unsuccessfully for the Bloc Québecois in the Montreal riding of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie in the 2021 federal election. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The medical mask she's wearing keeps fogging up Vaithyanathasarma's glasses, but door-knocking in a pandemic poses other challenges, as well.

As she waits on the top-floor landing of a small, multi-apartment dwelling, a woman comes out from the unit just below and explains that the upstairs neighbours won't be answering the door.

"They all have COVID," she says.

But the QS candidate has another, more abstract, challenge: persuading longtime PQ voters to switch allegiances to another sovereignist option, one that is opposed to Quebec's contentious secularism law, Bill 21, passed by François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec government in June 2019.

Pundits watching closely

It's hard to know how much space identity issues like secularism will take up in the fight for Marie-Victorin, but pundits will pore over how the major parties perform in this staunchly nationalist, francophone riding for signs of who's got momentum heading into the fall general election.

Le Devoir columnist Michel David says while historically, byelections haven't been seen as that important, that changed in 2017 after the CAQ's Geneviève Guilbault won a surprise upset in a byelection for the Quebec City riding of Louis-Hébert.

It was a precursor to the nationalist party's thumping electoral victory a year later.

"Now people tend to see byelections, especially when they're so close to a general election, as a huge poll that might be the result of the next election," says David.

Although her pamphlets focus on tackling the housing crisis, Vaithyanathasarma says the issues that attracted her to QS are the environment and Quebec sovereignty, which she calls "a very important idea that we have to keep fighting for."

If QS is to have a chance in the riding it will have to persuade left-leaning voters like Claude Pinard, who voted PQ in the past, that a newer party is the best way to keep that fight alive.

The Parti Québécois hasn't lost an election in Marie-Victorin since 1984, but the seat is currently vacant, pending a spring byelection. (Duk Han Lee/CBC News Graphics)

"It's not easy to unseat the Parti Québécois in Marie-Victorin," says Pinard, confessing he is "less sovereignist" than he used to be.

"I think the Parti Québécois has had its day," he said after signing Vaithyanathasarma's nomination papers.

Defending the PQ fort

But while the party founded by René Lévesque has been in the doldrums since the stunning defeat of the Pauline Marois government in 2014, it isn't hard to find dyed-in-the wool supporters in Marie-Victorin.

Over at the food court at Place Longueuil, a large shopping centre in the western part of the riding, the Tuesday lunch crowd is dominated by seniors like Roger Lord, who sips coffee while reading the Journal de Montréal.

'I've always been péquiste," he says, "and I will continue to be péquiste."

It doesn't hurt that the party has attracted a strong local candidate in former New Democrat MP Pierre Nantel, who lost his federal seat in 2019 after moving to the Greens.

"I've been living in Marie-Victorin for 24 years, so I know very well the importance of the Parti Québécois there," Nantel says.

"There is no way we're going to lose the Marie-Victorin riding this year."

Pierre Nantel of the Parti Québécois says the Legault government hasn’t done enough to help community organizations in Longueuil. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Nantel says it's going to be "a big fight" between his party and the CAQ, which pretty much ate the PQ's lunch in the Montreal suburbs last election, all but wiping the proud party from the electoral map.

He's urging Longueuil voters to return to their social democratic roots and hold the PQ line in Marie-Victorin.

"Most public policies that Quebecers are happy with, are proud of, have been done by the Parti Québécois," Nantel says.

CAQ tracking left with nurse candidate

If community ties and social issues end up playing heavily in the byelection, the CAQ has recruited a candidate who's in a solid position to burnish her own credentials.

"I grew up here in Marie-Victorin," says Shirley Dorismond, a nurse who has worked on the front lines in home care, walk-in clinics and street nursing for people in precarious housing or with mental health issues.

Dorismond says she was attracted to the governing CAQ because of its willingness to make "big changes" in the health-care system, including improvements to home-care services.

Shirley Dorismond, who is a nurse, says the governing CAQ approached her to run in Marie-Victorin. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Dorismond is, in many ways, an unconventional pick for the right-of-centre CAQ.

As reported in Le Devoir, as vice-president of the FIQ, Quebec's largest nurses' union, Dorismond criticized the Legault government's handling of the pandemic, especially for what she called the "massive death toll in CHSLDs."

In another position at odds with her new party, a Twitter post from July 2020 by the FIQ with the hashtag #strikeforblacklives quotes Dorismond saying, "As long as there is systemic racism, there is no social justice."

The premier has repeatedly denied the existence of systemic racism in Quebec.

Dorismond says the CAQ approached her to run with full knowledge of what she said in the past, but she steps around a question about whether she still believes systemic racism exists in the province.

"We are past that," she said. "The most important thing is to fight against racism with action."

As for her past comments on the health system, Dorismond says for the first time in 20 years, a government is listening to health-care workers.

The wild card

If conventional wisdom is that this will be a two-way race between the CAQ and PQ, a wild card has been thrown into the mix.

Actress Anne Casabonne, well-known for her Quebec television roles, is carrying the message of Quebec's Conservative Party, which has found new life under leader Éric Duhaime, until recently, a radio shock jock and one-time advisor to Action Démocratique's Mario Dumont and the federal Reform Party's Stockwell Day.

Casabonne says she was recruited by Duhaime to run in Marie-Victorin after he noticed she had become a party member.

The Conservatives, who have yet to elect an MNA to the National Assembly, are hoping to turn conventional wisdom on its head by converting pandemic fatigue into votes.

Casabonne's campaign pamphlet leans heavily on criticism of the public-health emergency, describing the vaccine passport as "discriminatory" and saying the time has come to "put democracy in action and learn to live with the virus."

Quebec Conservative Party Candidate Anne Casabonne doesn't live in Marie-Victorin but says she went to schools in the riding. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Casabonne, who has made anti-vaccine statements in the past, describes herself as "the most vaccinated person in the world," but won't say if that means she's been vaccinated against COVID-19.

She says her party aims to fundamentally restructure the province's health system, with a much greater reliance on private medicine to deliver services if public facilities can't.

Casabonne says recent convoy protests in Ottawa and Quebec City are evidence of a rupture in confidence between society and governments.

"We understand them very well, and we want to represent their voice at the National Assembly," she says.

Michel David doesn't think the Conservatives have a chance of winning the seat but says their rising popularity could play spoiler by drawing just enough voters away from the CAQ to hand the riding to the PQ.

"The way they can hurt the CAQ might be an indication in the next general election," says David.

Adding to the vote-splitting scenarios is the candidacy of former PQ cabinet minister and past Bloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet, who has founded a new party called Climat Québec.

Liberal long shot

As for the Liberals, they last won the seat in Marie-Victorin in another byelection held in 1984, but the PQ took back the riding a year later and has held it ever since.

Émilie Nollet, who is running for the Quebec Liberal Party, works in the field of social inclusion. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

This time, few give the federalist party much chance of winning, but how they perform in this overwhelmingly French-speaking riding will be closely watched, as the Liberals have been struggling in the polls with francophone voters.

The Liberals have enlisted Émilie Nollet, an entrepreneur and university researcher in the field of social inclusion.

She accuses the Legault government of using a divisive approach to woo the French-speaking electorate.

"We are in favour of promoting the francophone culture, the French culture which is so dear to us and so strong in our history," Nollet said. "We need to preserve it, but out of love, not out of repression [of] other people."

Will voters show up?

Shophika Vaithyanathasarma goes door to door with Québec Solidaire volunteers on St-Georges Street in the heart of the Marie-Victorin riding. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Back on St-Georges Street, Vaithyanathasarma knocks on the entrance to a basement suite.

The young woman who answers, Anne Doyon, says she's not sure she's even going to vote this time around.

She's had it with politicians of all stripes.

Michel David says as with most byelections, he doesn't expect voters to rush to the polls, but with a general election on the horizon, the one in Marie-Victorin will become "an event."

"Maybe more for commentators than for the electors," he concludes.


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