'A lighter shade of blue': Will voters in the Eastern Townships repaint the political landscape?

Despite the die-hard Liberals, the patch of red on the electoral map in the Eastern Townships could turn to light blue on Oct. 1, as the Coalition Avenir Québec gains momentum.

Liberal strongholds could disintegrate for first time in decades

North Hatley resident Carleen Knowlton said she can't put the sovereignty issue aside and will be voting, as usual, for the Liberals, who have represented the Eastern Townships for decades. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

On one of the last hot summer days of September, Richard Gilbert's mind was not entirely focused on the election campaign.

But the resident of Richmond, in the northern part of the Eastern Townships, was willing to make a prediction about who the winner on Oct. 1

"I think there will be quite the turnover with the CAQ," Gilbert said, calling the party "the lesser of all evils."

He's "90 per cent sure" the Coalition Avenir Québec will win in his riding, despite it being a Liberal stomping ground since 1981 — and despite the Liberals' sweep of all six of the region's ridings in 2014. 

"The CAQ isn't perfect, but Quebecers, we don't vote for what we believe in, we vote for what is less bad," he said.

Polls suggest Richard's prediction could come true.

While the gap between the CAQ and the Liberals has narrowed, the CAQ remains the favourite to win the most seats, according to CBC's Sept. 26 poll tracker.

The party is most popular in rural Quebec, including in the Eastern Townships, where three out of six ridings are leaning toward a CAQ candidate: Richmond, Brome-Missisquoi and Mégantic.

The Liberal party won 70 ridings in the 2014 election, including all six ridings in the Eastern Townships. (Jason Boychuk/CBC)

"There is a lot of dissatisfaction in this region," said André Lamoureux, a political science lecturer at l'Université du Québec à Montréal.

Health reform critics

The centralization of public services  — particularly health care, under Gaétan Barrette's reform — has had a palpable impact in the Eastern Townships, Lamoureux said.

Vicky May Hamm, the mayor of Magog in the Orford riding, agrees: people feel their quality of life has been affected.

Stanstead resident Lawrence Goodsell said he and his wife now have to drive 35 kilometres to see their doctor in Magog, because health services in the border town where he lives have been cut back. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

For example, when Magog Hospital wanted to open more beds during last winter's influenza outbreak, that decision was delayed until it got approval from the regional health authority in Sherbrooke.

"We find that this organization has grown way too big, and they are disconnected completely from what's happening locally," May Hamm said.

Stanstead resident Lawrence Goodsell said under the Liberals, he's watched health-care services become more and more difficult to access.

His family doctor used to be available for appointments once a week at the local clinic.

That was cut back to twice a month.

Now, having lost his driver's licence, Goodsell's 84-year-old wife has to drive them both to their appointments farther away, in Magog or Sherbrooke.

"When you see one part of the system is closed down, it doesn't take long to figure it out," he said.

Liberal stronghold for decades

The Quebec Liberal Party has counted on Richmond voters for more than three decades, but the party has an even longer history in Orford, where the party has won every election since 1973.

In Mégantic, the last party to defeat the Liberals was Union Nationale, in 1976.

Despite that history, it could prove difficult for the Liberals to overcome the hunger for something different that 60 per cent of Quebecers are expressing, according to the latest IPSOS-La Presse-Global News poll, published on Sept. 25.

The centralization of services in rural regions like the Eastern Townships mean residents have to drive longer distances. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

"It tells us that there will be change, even in the Eastern Townships," said Lamoureux.

The CAQ's platform also caters to rural voters, he said — for example, its promise to expand the high-speed internet network.

Longtime MNAs say goodbye

Complicating matters further for the Liberals is the departure of longtime MNAs like Pierre Reid, who represented the Orford riding for 15 years.

In Brome-Missisquoi, Pierre Paradis held the Liberal banner since he was first elected in 1980. 

Pierre Paradis, elected 11 times in the Brome-Missisquoi riding, is not running again. (Radio-Canada)

But the unseemly end to his political career could leave a scar on the region's reflex to go red, said Université de Sherbrooke political science professor Isabelle Lacroix.

Paradis was stripped of his cabinet portfolio and booted from the Liberal caucus in January 2017, over allegations of sexual misconduct. He was never charged.

"Could this hurt the party and the perception people have of the Liberals? We'll have to see," said Lacroix.

Brome-Missisquoi was the only riding in the Eastern Townships where the CAQ came in second in 2014, Lacroix underscored.

"We could find ourselves in a riding that will go from red to a lighter shade of blue," she said.

Sherbrooke, the swing riding

The outcome of Monday's election is not as predictable in the Sherbrooke and Saint-François ridings.

Lacroix said households in Sherbrooke have lower incomes than other regions, and voters "want real solutions to real problems." 

She said this could explain why polls show the popular vote is divided four ways — and why Québec Solidaire is finding an audience by focusing on issues like minimum wage.

"This resonates directly for the Sherbrooke region," said Lacroix.

The city's substantial immigrant population (11.4 per cent) could also turn their backs on the CAQ, which has promised to lower immigration quotas if elected.

Université de Sherbrooke Prof. Isabelle Lacroix said the 'wind of change' sweeping across Quebec could even reach traditionally Liberal ridings like Brome-Missisquoi. (Radio-Canada)

Saint-François, south of Sherbrooke, traditionally votes Liberal and could stay that way.

North Hatley resident Carleen Knowlton said she saw promise in the platforms of all four main parties.

But she said she can't bring herself to cast a ballot for anyone other than the Quebec Liberal Party.

"I wish I could, but I'd be afraid to," she said, the shadow of sovereignty still hanging over her head.

Even though PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée has said the party wouldn't hold a referendum during a first mandate, Knowlton said they'd be preparing the terrain to do it eventually.

"What does that mean to my life? What does that mean to my family, to my relatives who are buried here in Quebec?" she asks. 

"That to me negates anything that he could possibly offer."

With files from Quebec AM's Susan Campbell and Radio-Canada

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