The decline and fall of the NDP in Quebec

It took 12 years for the NDP to build a powerful political movement in Quebec — and to watch it collapse.

It was a dismal election for a party that once held 59 seats in the province. Can the NDP rise again?

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks to the media after the federal election in Burnaby, B.C., on Tuesday, October 22, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

It took 12 years for the NDP to build a powerful political movement in Quebec — and to watch it collapse.

In a fall byelection in 2007, Tom Mulcair — a former Quebec provincial cabinet minister — pulled off the unlikely feat of winning a seat for the NDP in what everyone thought was a Liberal stronghold.

From that Montreal outpost, the groundwork was laid for the Orange Wave, when the NDP ranks in Quebec ballooned to 59 seats in the 2011 election.

And then came the slow deflation. The party was reduced to 16 seats in the province in the 2015 election, but still secured nearly a quarter of the popular vote.

On Monday, as the results rolled in, the last bit of air in the balloon wheezed its way out: one seat in Quebec and just 11 per cent of the province's vote.

In many ridings in the province, the party was tossed aside for the Bloc Québécois, which had copied large parts of the conservative-nationalist platform of the provincial Coalition Avenir Québec government. In other ridings, especially in Montreal, the NDP lost seats to the Liberals.

In a fall byelection in 2007, Tom Mulcair pulled off the unlikely feat of winning a seat for the NDP in what everyone thought was a Liberal stronghold. That laid the base for the Orange Wave in 2011, when Jack Layton, right, led the party into Official Opposition status. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Left-leaning voters in Quebec woke up Tuesday feeling grim about the NDP's prospects in the province.

"It's terrible," said Ian Capstick, a former adviser to the party and founder of the progressive communications firm MediaStyle. "Is there a way out of this? No, not quickly."

The curse of Bill 21

The results were not surprising. The party hasn't polled above 20 per cent in Quebec since May 2017, according to CBC's Poll Tracker. Not long after that, NDP members chose Jagmeet Singh to replace Mulcair as their leader.

Mulcair was fluently bilingual and had long been a fixture on the Quebec political scene. Skeptics suggested that Singh, a practising Sikh who wears a turban and ceremonial dagger, would struggle to connect with voters in a resolutely secular province.

Singh's task was complicated further when the Quebec government tabled legislation this spring to ban civil servants in positions of authority — such as teachers and government lawyers — from wearing religious symbols.

Despite protests and legal challenges claiming the law is discriminatory, Bill 21 has proved popular.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh hugs Olivia Chow, widow of former NDP leader Jack Layton, as they make an announcement at Jack Layton Park during a campaign stop in Hudson, Que., on Wednesday, October 16, 2019. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

And many of the ridings the NDP held going into the election are in the semi-rural areas between Montreal and Quebec City where support for the secularism law is highest.

When, on the first day of the campaign, Premier François Legault demanded that all federal leaders keep their hands off Bill 21, it was clear Singh would face a difficult choice.

He opted to straddle the issue, making his disapproval of the law clear while suggesting an NDP government would not support court challenges against it, claiming it falls under provincial jurisdiction.

To some progressives in Quebec, that sounded like Singh was trying to have his cake and eat it too. 

"Many of the people who were affected by Bill 21, and who criticized it, said, 'How could he wear religious symbols and not speak out about it?'" said Eve Torres, a Montreal anti-racism activist.

"He was timid on it … and that was shocking."

Torres, who wears a hijab, ran unsuccessfully in last year's provincial election for the left-leaning Québec Solidaire. She's believed to be the first candidate in a Quebec provincial election to seek office wearing the Muslim headscarf.

She said the debate over Bill 21 has unleashed a nativistic form of political populism in Quebec — especially on social media, which makes it difficult for visible and cultural minorities to be taken seriously as candidates for office.

Eve Torres said the debate over Bill 21 has unleashed a form of nativistic political populism in Quebec, especially on social media, which makes it difficult for visible and cultural minorities to be taken seriously as candidates for office. (Lauren McCallum/CBC)

"It was the same thing for me. There are categories of people … who people say shouldn't be elected officials," Torres said. "It was always going to be difficult for him."

But NDP strategists may have made a strategic error by trying to craft a message that would appeal across all 78 ridings in Quebec, said Capstick.

By watering down his comments on Bill 21, he said, Singh failed to connect both with cosmopolitan voters in Montreal and with voters elsewhere in Canada.

"Because they were trying so desperately to connect with Quebecers, Jagmeet Singh failed to land his punches on Bill 21," Capstick said.

"Take a look at the number of seats they lost in British Columbia. Don't tell me that wouldn't have been a great talking point on the door out there."

NDP candidates themselves acknowledged that voters often mentioned Singh's turban and Bill 21 while they were on the hustings.

"He was trying to connect with people but the context certainly didn't help," said Pierre-Luc Dusseault, who was first elected in the Orange Wave and narrowly lost his seat Monday to a Liberal candidate.

But Dusseault also defended the line his leader took on Bill 21. "The law is before the courts in Quebec. The federal government doesn't have any jurisdiction," he said.

"His position may have been very legal, but it was the right one."

Signs of hope on the horizon? 

Making Monday's elections results even more difficult for many NDP supporters is the loss of several MPs who won unexpectedly in the Orange Wave and built strong bases of local support.

During the campaign, Trois-Rivieres MP Robert Aubin was described as doing "excellent work" by his Bloc opponent. But he still lost to her.

Ruth Ellen Brousseau was written off as a parachute candidate in 2011 when she won a rural riding, Berthier-Maskinongé, that she had never visited before.

She dramatically improved her French, committed to learning about agricultural issues and won again in 2015. She also fell to the Bloc earlier this week.

Dusseault was only 19, just finishing his first year of university, when he was swept to the House of Commons in the Orange Wave. He also worked hard enough to win another term in 2015, only to come 600 votes short this time.

An editorial cartoon of Ruth Ellen Brosseau in Le Nouvelliste, a daily newspaper that serves her former riding. The cartoon appeared Thursday and shows Brosseau plugged into an electric car charging station. The sign around her neck says, 'Will be back soon.' (Le Nouvelliste)

"It was still a good result for us and speaks to the hard work we did over the last eight years," he said Friday.

Karl Bélanger, a former national director of the NDP and former principal secretary to Mulcair, said the party should go out of its way to show "love and affection" for its defeated MPs.

"One of the key factors to winning elections is having name recognition on the ballot," he said. "These former MPs stand a better chance of coming back and winning."

Across the Western world, party loyalty is declining, Belanger said. Voters are less patient with their representatives; they're apt to sour on them quickly and radically change allegiances from one election to the next.

"This fluidity, this lack of loyalty, is what should give hope to any party," he said. "Be ready for the picking when they are ready to switch."


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at


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