Why Québec Solidaire is having the campaign of its life
But with small left-wing party' break-out moment, so too comes a reckoning
No one seems to be having a good campaign these days in Quebec; no one, that is, except a small left-wing party that doesn't believe in leaders and has a campaign bus bereft of journalists.
Polls released last week suggest the Coalition Avenir Québec has given up most of its lead in the popular vote, and that the incumbent Liberals aren't doing much better.
The Parti Québécois leader, Jean-François Lisée, delivered a debate performance Thursday that was so bilious that he was the consensus choice as the night's biggest loser.
And then there is Québec Solidaire, polling at record-high levels for the party. Some projections even have it doubling its current seat count on Oct.1, though that would only mean going from three to six MNAs.
If QS is on the cusp of enjoying its break-out moment, one of the principal reasons is the popularity of Manon Massé.
As one of the party's two spokespeople (it doesn't have a "leader"), she has endeared herself to many Quebecers over the past 10 days with a series of unconventional debate performances.
As the three male leaders squabbled for long periods, she stayed quiet, offering only exasperated looks for the camera.
But when her turn came, she delivered straightforward arguments for progressive policies — a $15/hour minimum wage, phasing out gas-powered vehicles — and she did so in an unadorned French that often began with a blunt, "moi là..."
"It's too soon to say if we're going to succeed [on election day], but what we can say is that we're getting our message across," said the party's other spokesperson, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
"It's coming across in areas of the population in which, traditionally, it's been very difficult for us to be heard."
On the day after the final debate, Nadeau-Dubois was spinning the bingo cage at a seniors' residence in the Montreal riding of Laurier-Dorion.
The setting was far removed from the university campuses where QS support has traditionally been strongest, and where Nadeau-Dubois first made his name as a student union leader.
One of the residents thought she recognized Nadeau-Dubois. "Weren't you with [Jean] Charest?" she asked, referring the Quebec premier at the time of the 2012 student strikes.
"No, I was pretty much dead against Charest," Nadeau-Dubois replied.
There are some audiences, clearly, where the QS wave has yet to crest.
While Massé made the most of the platform afforded by the televised debates, translating that into more seats in the National Assembly is another matter.
Since it was founded in 2006, the QS voter base has been concentrated in three or four bordering ridings in central and eastern Montreal; its appeal outside the big city was long-thought limited.
But the party is relying on decidedly old-school tactics in its effort make gains in areas once beyond its reach.
In the Quebec City riding of Taschereau, for instance, it has managed to recruit more than 1,000 members and has a volunteer team 500-strong, according to the party.
It's the product of a long-term strategy. Months before the campaign started, local candidate Catherine Dorion and her team were going door-to-door and were present at block parties throughout the summer.
Not surprisingly, current projections suggest QS stands a fair chance of taking the riding from the Parti Québécois.
"Without a doubt — Québec Solidaire wins where it has an active membership base. There is a correlation," said Justin Arcand, who leads the party's organizing efforts in Taschereau.
In Laurier-Dorion, the party is seeking to strengthen its ties with local immigrant communities in order to flip what was once a Liberal stronghold.
Lunch on Friday, for Nadeau-Dubois, was at a Pakistani restaurant on Jean-Talon Street, where he met with Mahmod Baig, a prominent figure in Montreal's South Asian community.
"He knows everybody in Parc Extension," Andrés Fontecilla, the local QS candidate, said as he introduced Baig.
Over naan bread, saag paneer and butter chicken, Baig relayed statistics about poverty in the area and stressed the need for better housing options.
"But the beauty is you're talking to immigrants," Baig told them.
The progressive movements that QS admires — the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party in the U.K. — have all demonstrated the power of decentralized, grassroots organizing, and of multiplying one-on-one interactions with voters, said Nadeau-Dubois
"We've always been about that, but now with more volunteers we can reach more people than ever before," he added.
But as QS approaches mainstream levels of support for the first time in its history, it's faced a backlash from its sovereigntist cousin and occasional social-democratic ally, the PQ.
Lisée derailed Thursday's debate by suggesting there was some kind of mysterious figure who was pulling the strings within QS.
PQ candidates across the province followed Lisée's lead, multiplying their attacks over the weekend, suggesting the party is cutting into its support.
Meanwhile, pundits are bringing the party's policies under greater scrutiny, such as its proposal to raise $13 billion in additional government revenues, mainly by hiking taxes on the rich and corporations.
The revenues would be necessary in order to pay for the party's costly campaign promises, such as free university education and universal dental insurance.
"What these men will tell you is that we can't pay for these things," Massé said during the first debate, responding to criticism that her party's proposals are unrealistic.
"But these men are wrong. They don't have vision. They don't dream. We're able to get the money and our financial plan details exactly where we'll find it."
At stake in the conflict between QS and the PQ is who will emerge as the voice of the left in Quebec.
That role has been played by the PQ since it first came to power in 1976, and as the Liberals struck as increasingly pro-business line.
But the PQ sacrificed its bona fides in recent years by flip-flopping on environmental issues and advocating for the Charter of Values, which many felt targeted minority communities.
"I'm part of a generation for which the Parti Québécois doesn't have the old mystical progressive reputation it maybe had for other generations," said Nadeau-Dubois.
QS still has some ground to cover before it is taken seriously as a mainstream party, let alone a viable alternative for government.
While it has a big campaign bus like its more established rivals, the media bus that follows along is usually empty.
But if momentum continues to build behind the party, don't be surprised if more people jump aboard in the last week of the campaign.
Watch CBC Montreal's Debra Arbec in conversation with Manon Massé.
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