Michelle Gagnon: NDP wave in Quebec still surging

One month into the campaign and more than one to go, it’s clear Quebec’s Orange Wave of 2011 was no fluke. And now, in a campaign that’s all about change, Quebecers are opting for continuity.

The Orange Wave that swept the province in 2011 was no fluke

Jack Layton holds up a old-style Montreal Canadiens jersey given to him by then candidate Tom Mulcair in Montreal in April 2011. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

One month into the campaign and more than one to go, it's clear Quebec's Orange Wave was no fluke.

No, the NDP's 2011 sweep of the province was what Quebecers wanted. And now, in a campaign that's all about change, Quebecers are opting for continuity.

A fluke, of course, is how the Bloc Québécois and the Liberals explained away the NDP's haul of 59 of 75 Quebec seats. As the theory goes, Jack Layton tapped into the attraction Quebecers have shown for charismatic leaders, and once brought into the fold as Le bon Jack, the deal was sealed.

Stephen Harper has formed successive governments, won a majority even, without Quebec, effectively unseating the province as traditional kingmaker. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But Layton did not live long enough to lead the Official Opposition in the last Parliament. And, now, almost all polls suggest the NDP will keep its seats in Quebec or add more, increasing the count all the way up to 67.

So if not a one-off, what?

The answer may have as much to do with Tom Mulcair's NDP as it does with its rivals.

Enter the fray

Ringing in first is anti-Harper sentiment. If the rest of the country is holding a referendum on the prime minister, Quebecers decided long ago. He's just not their guy. Too English despite his successful efforts to speak French, too establishment for their contrarian streak, and too conservative to represent collective self-perception as social democrats, be it true or not.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, centre, alongside members of the National Assembly Stephane Bergeron and Maka Kotto, right, speaks to supporters during a federal election campaign stop in Montreal on Monday. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

And the feeling is mutual, so to speak. Stephen Harper has formed successive governments, won a majority even, without Quebec, effectively unseating the province as traditional kingmaker, and cementing an uncomfortable truth for a province that tends to vote with and for power.

The Liberals, once the recipients of such favour, may well have taken a page from Harper's book. The party organization decamped from Quebec when Justin Trudeau became leader, leaving its forces there diminished. And Trudeau's lineage, a boon in some parts of the country, remains a handicap in Quebec, a reminder of resentment over his father's handling of the patriation of the Constitution that coloured federal-provincial relations for years.

Which is where the Bloc comes in. Or doesn't, actually.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau stands next to former prime minister Paul Martin as he addresses supporters last Friday in Montreal. Martin has accused Mulcair in this campaign of moving the NDP to the 'far right.' (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Brought down to four seats in 2011, the Bloc lost party status, then self-mutilated with the election of controversial leader Mario Beaulieu. Despite an initial surge, Gilles Duceppe's last-minute return to the helm has done little to improve the party's fortunes.

But the biggest clue to the Bloc's predicament can be found in Quebec's 2014 provincial election. The ousting of the PQ was read in many ways, but one incontrovertible explanation was ebbing sovereigntist sympathies, a loss that led many to speculate that separatism is a generational issue.

On the federal level, that translates to a potential shift away from the longtime federalist-separatist divide toward a more ideological left-right split.

And so enters Mulcair's NDP.

A homecoming

Late last week, as the economy moved to centre stage and attacks on the NDP multiplied, Mulcair made for home and a victory lap in the hotly contested riding of NDG-Westmount.

Mulcair's arrival was anticipated, orchestrated, drawn out, and finally delivered. Appearing a little like the cat who ate the canary, he walked the corridor of clamouring supporters to an introduction as "the next prime minister of Canada."

Conquering-hero stuff on a small scale. Still, riding redistribution has altered the landscape there, tipping the balance away from tonier Westmount to more populist NDG. The change has given the NDP a real chance at unseating Liberal incumbent and former astronaut Marc Garneau, and provides a good vantage point to see just how broad-based Mulcair's NDP has become.

Mulcair defended his promise to balance the budget in year one, and launched his "king of austerity" barb at former prime minister Paul Martin. (The attack earned him a return in kind the next day, as Martin claimed Mulcair has moved the NDP to the "far right").

The NDP leader moved easily from his anti-deficit message to repeatedly trumpeting his anti-poverty platform. He even made reference, in French, to the fact that the party is a member of the Socialist International.

The dissonance was momentarily deafening. This is not the traditional way to woo Westmount, one of the wealthiest cities in Quebec. And yet, the crowd seemed comfortable with the contradictions. Not only because it's easy to approve of balanced budgets and oppose poverty, but because Mulcair has continued Layton's work, moving the party away from its once-deep union ties and its perception as a heavy-handed, left-wing interventionist party.

Sure, some NDP stalwarts see loss there. Two protesters paraded outside the riding office on Friday, urging Mulcair to be true to the party's roots. But ultimately, eschewing these old affiliations is a large part of what's giving the NDP its lead in the polls.

Earlier in the campaign, a Bloc supporter and blogger unearthed an old video of Mulcair appearing to trumpet the virtues of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The video got a lot of play in Quebec, and the suggestion was made that Mulcair is really a closet conservative, anathema to Quebec voters.

But the slight didn't stick. Instead, comparisons to Tony Blair have multiplied. Not the widely reviled post-Iraq Blair, but the man who transformed the U.K. Labour Party and led it to victory three times.

Mulcair is going for first. The party's slim lead in national polls depends strongly on maintaining its numbers in Quebec.

And, right now, only a fluke could change those.


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.


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