10 years on, the Orange Wave in Quebec is barely a trickle. Can this election reverse the tide?

A number of NDP candidates running this year were part of the Orange Wave phenomenon of 2011, now attempting to build back after a near-total collapse in Quebec.

A handful of the NDP's class of '11 MPs are attempting to win back their seats

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and candidate Alexandre Boulerice campaign together during the 2019 federal election. Boulerice was the only NDP MP to survive that race, and the last of the NDP's Orange Wave MPs to hold his riding. (Nathan Denette / Canadian Press)

Alexandre Boulerice admits that his is a lonely position.

Boulerice, in the Montreal riding of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, is one of those rare candidates who routinely and significantly outperforms their party. In 2019, when the NDP got just 11 per cent of the vote in Quebec, Boulerice won more than  42 per cent in his riding.

That personal popularity has helped him to win three elections — possibly a fourth — and survive the collapse of the NDP in Quebec. His riding is single orange dot in a sea of red and blues in the province.

"To be alone is a little bit tough, I have to say," Boulerice said.

10 years ago, Boulerice was just one of 59 NDP candidates who rode an "Orange Wave" of NDP support in Quebec straight to a near sweep of the province and the role of Official Opposition in Ottawa.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh; his wife, Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu, and Boulerice march in the Pride parade in Montreal on Aug. 15 at the start of the federal election campaign. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press.)

But after the 2015 election, that number was down to 16. And following the 2019 campaign, only Boulerice hung on. From a political standpoint, he said, it's been a loss for the party with those insights and diverse perspectives gone. Personally, it was tough to see his friends defeated.

"I'm confident that I won't be the only one next Monday — because I need it," he said.

A number of the NDP's class of '11 are running again this year, trying to break through in a handful of seats that were once theirs: Ruth Ellen Brosseau in Berthier–Maskinongé, François Choquette in Drummond, Djaouida Sellah, the list goes on.

The NDP are polling just above the 11 per cent share of the popular vote in Quebec they got in 2019, according to the CBC's Poll Tracker, a decline from a high of 15 per cent last week. The party is doing better nationally, but in the three- or four-way splits so common in Quebec, it's difficult to predict whether the NDP can make gains.

The 'Orange Wave' crashes into Quebec

Back in 2011, there was a different kind of unpredictability in the air. The NDP's surge in Quebec took many Canadians — and many of the party's local candidates — by surprise. Some NDP candidates never bothered to campaign or stumped for other candidates. Famously, Ruth Ellen Brosseau spent a portion of the election vacationing in Las Vegas.

Boulerice and several staffers who worked on the election are unanimous that it was then-leader Jack Layton, "le bon Jack" as he was called, who convinced Quebecers to give him a shot.

"It was not me," Boulerice said. "It was Jack Layton winning this riding."

NDP Leader Jack Layton, middle, speaks to a vendor while visiting a Montreal market in 2011. Then local candidates at the time, Alexandre Boulerice, behind left, and Thomas Mulcair, behind right, look on. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

"Jack Layton offered some hope, something new" for Quebec voters disillusioned with Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québécois, said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University.

It was Layton's fourth election as party leader, so while it had not been "love on the first date," as Boulerice put it, he was by then an established national figure and buttressed during the campaign by strong debate performances and a hailed appearance on the influential program Tout le monde en parle.

Going in, sweeping the province "was not the main objective" of the outset of the campaign, said Karl Bélanger, who was the party's press secretary in 2011 and had previously been principal secretary for Quebec. He later served as principal secretary to Tom Mulcair.

"We had targeted a handful of seats and we thought that if we were lucky, we could get up to six seats," Belanger said. "But more realistically, we were really hoping to get three, maybe four seats."

Instead the party won 59 in the province, sending dozens of new MPs, including host of young Canadians like the "McGill Five" to Ottawa. The party also set a record with the election of Pierre-Luc Dusseault as the youngest MP ever, at 19, in Sherbrooke.

The swell of inexperienced MPs was a challenge for the party, said Jordan Leichnitz, who toured with Layton as a policy adviser in 2011 and later served as Tom Mulcair's deputy chief of staff.

NDP Leader Jack Layton delivers a speech during a 2011 rally in Saskatoon. (Paul Chiasson / Canadian Press)

But she noted that the party also benefited from the influx of new experience and new perspectives.

Just months after their best-ever electoral result, though, Jack Layton died, a tragic blow to those who had worked with him and counted him as a friend, as well as to the party's stability and prospects.

"Losing Jack early — it's hard to play out what it would look like if he were still there," Leichnitz said.

Regression 'was not inevitable': Belanger

Four years later, the 2015 campaign began with the NDP leading in the polls, with a good shot of forming a government. But after the phenomenon of 2011, wasn't some sort of reversion to the mean unavoidable?

"No, it was not inevitable," Belanger said.

In the 2015 election, Leichnitz, Belanger, Boulerice and Béland all pointed to the issue of the Conservatives' ban on the wearing of the niqab during citizenship oaths — which leader Tom Mulcair opposed on grounds of principle — as the key moment in the race.

Principal secretary Karl Belanger looks on as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair campaigns during the 2015 federal election. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"I think it was a turning point in the campaign in Quebec," Béland said, while noting  a combination of other factors that also played a role: the unabashedly progressive campaign of Justin Trudeau and the loss of Layton's unique appeal chief among them.

The "profound shift" in the nature of Quebec nationalism toward something more focused on the notion of secularism has worked against the party in the intervening years as well, Béland said. 

NDP suffers from Quebec focus on secularism: Béland 

The same issue was at play in the 2019 election, he argued, when this country's first person of colour elected to lead a major party, Jagmeet Singh, faced challenges over his position on Quebec's Bill 21.

That dynamic may once more be eating away at NDP support in the province. The decline from its peak in the polls during this election coincides with the fallout of the English leaders' debate, when a question on Bills 21 and 96 sparked controversy and condemnation. The Bloc Québécois seems to have been the beneficiary when it comes to changes in vote share.

Boulerice is skeptical that the the debate question will actually drive voters to the polls, arguing that his party's issues of climate change, housing and taxing the ultra-rich have deeper resonance. And reflecting back on his experience 10 years ago, he sees a new metaphor to replace the idea of a renewed Orange Wave.

"We planted seeds 10 years ago. And now we have roots."

Leichnitz agrees that all that was gained in 2011 was not lost, despite what the current seat count suggests.

"There's a vote base in Quebec that is young, concerned about climate issues, consider themselves citizens of the world and are looking for progressive options. Those are our people that are there," Leichnitz said.

"I think it's significant that the party hasn't given up on Quebec, and it's important that they not do so. Because there can be no other path to power without having a significant number of seats in Quebec."

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