What's at stake in Monday's English-language election debate

Quebec's English debate is historic — it's the first-ever televised debate in the language between the party leaders. Even though anglophones make up only a small minority of the province's population, the stakes are high.

Political leaders likely to be 'cautious' in addressing anglophones in first-ever English TV debate

The party leaders gathered last week for a French-language debate. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Monday's election debate is certain to be historic — it's the first-ever TV debate in the English language between provincial party leaders.

And even though anglophones make up only a small minority of the province's population, the stakes are high.

The showdown set for Monday evening comes at a key moment in the campaign, after no clear winner emerged from last week's French-language debate. And there is only one more French debate remaining, later in the week.

Polls suggest Francois Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec is in majority territory, buoyed by his popularity among francophones.

The Liberals, the traditional home for Quebec Anglos, are second in the polls, followed by the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire.

So, will the leaders use the debate to address the English-speaking community, or will their focus remain on the francophone voters that are critical to an electoral victory?

Everyone's watching, even if they aren't

Jack Jedwab, a demographer and the director of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies, said he expects the leaders to be "extremely cautious" when making promises to the English-speaking audience.

"Even though they are speaking in English, we're not in an era where you can say one thing in English and another thing in French," Jedwab said in an interview. The French media will be, of course, reporting on the event.

Making incremental gains among anglophone voters won't get Legault over the "finish line," Jedwab said, pointing out that the bulk of the CAQ's support lies outside Montreal.

By contrast, he said, Couilllard is more likely to address the English audience directly in attempt to engage that part of his base.

The province's predominantly anglophone ridings, on Montreal's West Island, have historically been a Liberal fortress, and polls suggest the party is again poised to sweep those ridings on Oct. 1.

But there are other ridings with significant English-speaking populations, on the island of Montreal, on Montreal's South Shore, in the Eastern Townships and in Laval that could be up for grabs.   

For that reason, Couillard "is probably the one who is going to talk more directly to the English audience to mobilize that vote," Jedwab said.

Political calculations aside, the longtime observer of English-speaking Quebec said the debate is positive "in and of itself."

"It's speaking to progress in Quebec, toward a more inclusive society," said Jedwab.

Commitments to Anglos, and for all?

Geoffrey Chambers, president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella group representing English community organizations across the province, said he will be watching for specific commitments to English speakers.

Also important, he said, are the parties' positions on critical issues such as health care and education.

"I really think that the English-speaking community has a lot of overlapping or actually integrated interests [with Quebecers at large] regarding the success of Quebec society," Chambers said.

Geoffrey Chambers is president of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella group representing English community organizations across the province. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

When it comes to English speakers in particular, Chambers said he wants the party leaders to clearly state they will keep the Secretariat for relations with English-speaking Quebecers, a government body established by the Liberals last year.

Malcolm Lewis-Richard, president of Youth for Youth Québec, a non-profit that represents English-speaking young people, is hopeful the leaders will steer away from language and identity politics during the debate — and for the rest of the campaign.

"It's not a secret that Montreal and Quebec are French. We don't need to use immigration as a way to promote fearmongering," he said.

The debate takes place between 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday. For more details on how to watch, go here.

With files from CBC's Sean Henry

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