The Liberals are struggling to hold their ground in small-town Quebec
Bloc Québécois support growing in the final days of the campaign
At the Café Central in Coaticook, Que., Madeleine Dubé and Louise-Hélène Gagnon tucked into the lunchtime special: a hamburger steak with fries and coleslaw. And all that for $8.95, thank you very much.
Gagnon, 78, teased her friend when Dubé, 85, blushed at the mention of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
"She's the same way with hockey players," Gagnon said. "If there's one she likes, it doesn't matter what they do."
But other regulars at the cafe — it's been around since 1961 — were less forgiving of Trudeau.
Guy Brouillard, a grain dealer, voted Liberal in 2015, thinking a Trudeau government would be better for his business and his family. He regrets his choice.
"Mr. Trudeau really disappointed me," Brouillard, 56, said as he wrapped up his lunch.
Brouillard's business depends on the local dairy industry and felt Trudeau was outplayed in free-trade negotiations with the United States. As part of the new NAFTA deal, Canada's supply management system was opened to more competition, meaning tighter margins for local producers.
"I don't think he's a guy who can negotiate. He's not a serious man," Brouillard said.
All bets are off
Coaticook, at 10,000 inhabitants, is one of the larger towns in Compton-Stanstead, a sprawling riding in southwestern Quebec currently held by the Liberal agriculture minister, Marie-Claude Bibeau.
This corner of Quebec, the Eastern Townships, largely voted Liberal in the last federal election. At the start of the current campaign, few thought that would change.
But since the three debates that marked the half-way point of the campaign, the Bloc Québécois has been climbing steadily in the polls.
At first, the gains seemed to come at the expense of the Conservatives. Then the Bloc began polling well in ridings the Liberals had hoped to win from the NDP.
Those would have been precious additions to the 40 Quebec seats the Liberals held going into the election. Party strategists were eyeing gains in Quebec to compensate for losses elsewhere in the country, allowing the Liberals to retain their majority.
Now all are bets are off as even once solidly Liberal seats are starting to waver in the face of growing interest in the Bloc and its charismatic, but untested leader, Yves-François Blanchet.
On Wednesday night, Trudeau held a rally in Sherbrooke, the main city in the Eastern Townships.
A visit by the leader in the dying days of an unpredictable campaign can only mean one thing: this is high-priority ground for the party.
Popular local candidate, unpopular leader
There were more than a dozen people in Bibeau's campaign office when she returned, earlier this week, from a quick whistle stop tour of three ridings west of hers.
The office, a former Tim Hortons, was draped in flags. Copies of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms were taped to the wall; so too were Liberal slogans like "Hope and hard work" and "Investing in rural success."
But getting more attention were "bingo sheets," voter data provided by Elections Canada, which volunteers were using to determine who had already voted and who still needed convincing.
Bibeau's team has been aiming to have three shifts of volunteers working the phones daily.
"I didn't want to look at the polls, because I know in any campaign things can change overnight," Bibeau said. "I never took anything for granted. We all worked very hard from the beginning."
Bibeau is well liked by many in the riding, her popularity boosted by the high-profile cabinet position.
"Having the agriculture minister from our region can't hurt," said Annie Laforelle, a dairy producer from Coaticook.
Louise Cloutier, a retired officer worker, said it was her positive impression of Bibeau that was keeping her from voting for the Bloc.
"She's done a good job. And, yes, her being a cabinet minister makes a difference," Cloutier said as she went to volunteer at a local community centre.
But outside the grocery store in Lennoxville, once-Liberal voters said the scandals and controversies of the past four years have been weighing on their minds as they decide how to vote on Monday.
"Frankly, I'm incredibly disappointed with how Trudeau handled the SNC-Lavalin affair," said Rosemary Butler, 56, a dairy farmer. It was, she added, her only hesitation about voting for her local candidate, Bibeau.
Patrick Lafortune, an occupational therapist and CEGEP teacher, soured on the Liberals over the legalization of marijuana and their decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline.
"It's 2019. It's a total aberration that the pipeline is part of his program," Lafortune said. He plans to vote for the Bloc in order to protect Quebec's "progressive values."
The search for an alternative
Standing under the neon marquee of the Granby Palace, Andréanne Larouche made sure no one entered that night's comedy show without a handshake or a Bloc Québécois pamphlet.
Granby is a town of 63,000 people in Shefford, another riding that was considered a lock for the Liberals back in that other lifetime, mid-September.
"A lot has changed since the beginning of the campaign," said Larouche, a seniors rights advocate who is running against backbench Liberal MP Pierre Breton.
Larouche knew she was a long shot when she signed up in the summer to be a candidate. But she sensed that, unlike in 2015 when Breton won with nearly 40 per cent of the vote, there was less enthusiasm for the Liberals this time.
Then came the three debates, including two in French, in which Blanchet, the Bloc leader, was able to set himself apart from his federalist rivals.
"That helped convince people who were looking for an alternative," Larouche said.
Among those convinced by Blanchet's debate performances was Jean-François Roger, a 32 year-old machine operator in a high-tech wire factory in Granby.
Beyond the leader's charisma, Roger was attracted by the Bloc's willingness to stand up for the religious symbol law (Bill 21) passed this summer by the provincial government.
Trudeau has left the door open to supporting legal challenges against the law, which minority groups and many legal experts say is discriminatory.
Roger, though, wants the federal government to respect the law's widespread popularity in Quebec.
"For once, we all agree on something," he said after the comedy show. "But all we hear is that Canada is going to contest it."