Never mind the West, can Justin Trudeau crack Fortress Quebec?

It's Justin Trudeau versus Thomas Mulcair in Quebec, the battle of two very different native sons, with two very different holds on Quebec voters.

It's Trudeau vs. Mulcair in Quebec, the battle of two very different native sons

A woman uses her phone to take a photo of herself with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau during the Vancouver Pride Parade in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday August 3, 2014. (Darryl Dyck / Canadian Press)

On the campaign trail, there are few first encounters with Justin Trudeau.

Working a crowd, he enters as if returning, arms outstretched, a big smile and a Hey or Hi that suggests a personal connection, friendship even.

He moves swiftly, as if rushing to pick up the conversation where he left off. His easy manner is infectious, and he's quickly pulled in to pose. Another big smile as shutters click away, and he's off again.

It's real personality politics — the kind of glad-handing that his famously aloof father never mastered — and it was on display this past weekend as Trudeau came "home" for Montreal's annual Pride Parade.

He doesn't, of course, know everyone in the crowd. But most know him, the first impression made long ago.

In some sense, he belongs to Canada, cast in our collective memory as a child held high in the air by his father, Pierre; as the grief-stricken brother at his youngest sibling's death; or as eldest son, age 28, delivering a eulogy in which many first saw evidence of political promise.

Now, surprisingly, after defying repeated Conservative attacks, and despite some early missteps, Trudeau appears to have made good on that promise.

Almost a year and a half into his leadership, a mid-summer Ekos poll shows the Liberal party leading in voter intention, far outranking the reigning Conservatives and a big stretch ahead of its current third place in the Commons.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau walks with his two of his three children, Ella and Xavier, during the Calgary Stampede parade in July. (Todd Korol / Reuters)

So he's made a mark. But with a year before an actual election, Trudeau and the Liberals know all too well that they need to make gains on the ground if success is going to mean anything.

Holding their caucus retreat this week in Alberta, where the party has no MPs, is testament to that fact.

And if fortress Harper is a target, the NDP's stronghold in Quebec makes this province another essential battleground.

So, the question is, how will the Trudeau factor play here?

Native son?

Belonging, of course, is key to politics in Quebec. The nationalism that divides party support provincially often cuts across partisan lines in the federal arena.

Being a native son, as Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney were, or a reinstated one as le bon Jack Layton became, can often be a deciding factor in winning Quebec and forming a national government.

True, Stephen Harper's Conservatives have won successive governments without much backing from Quebec. But Conservative MP Denis Lebel's current 12-day charm offensive to court Quebec voters suggests that even they know the province is not to be discounted.

By all measures, Trudeau is undeniably from here, from Montreal in particular, where he spent his teen and university years after his father retired from politics.

His French is flawless, and his knowledge of the province's set-piece political battles almost intimate.

More, his stance on abortion, legalizing marijuana, and LGBTQ issues feel homegrown, in line with Quebecers' more progressive instincts.

But he is also the son of a man considered by many here to have betrayed his own. First, by invoking the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis, and then by outmaneuvering Quebec and leaving it on the sidelines during the 1982 constitutional negotiations.

This depiction, of course, is debatable — but still debated. Perception is everything in politics, and in this case "like father like son" is a damning quip on many Quebecers' lips.

So, while he may belong to Canada, the counterpoint of "belonging to Quebec" may not play entirely to Justin's advantage.

The orange wave

Another factor here is the overwhelming rejection of the Parti Québécois and its sovereigntist option in favour of Philippe Couillard's Liberals in last spring's provincial election.

On the surface, that change should bode well for Trudeau. But it may not.

With Couillard in power , the need to find someone to champion the federalist option has dissipated, and so Quebecers' contrarian impulse might not stand so many Liberals in one place.

Two very different Quebeceers. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau shown here attending the regimental funeral for the three RCMP officers who were killed in Moncton in June 2014. (Reuters)

In any event, why put all their eggs in one basket when fortress Quebec belongs at the moment to another native son, Thomas Mulcair?

Though their respective party positions often converge, the difference between the two leaders is especially marked here in Quebec.

Where Trudeau's charisma is physical, attitudinal, generational, Mulcair's is all verbal, intellectual.

A master rhetorician in both official languages, Mulcair has huge props in Quebec for giving Harper the gears in the Commons; and almost more for having quit Jean Charest's then unpopular provincial government in a huff over an environmental issue.

But he also faces challenges in his home province, the main one being holding on to the 56 seats that helped make the NDP the Official Opposition.

The so-called orange wave that swept Quebec in 2011 was probably a bit of a fluke, fuelled by a swell of affection for Jack Layton, the kind that still eludes Mulcair.

It effectively wiped the Bloc from the roster, and swept in a host of young, inexperienced, and rather sudden politicians. Some have risen to the occasion, but most remain relatively unknown.

If Trudeau manages to rebuild the Liberal party in Quebec like he has in Ontario, recruiting high-profile and/or community-driven candidates to buttress his relative inexperience, the NDP could well have a fight on its hands.

But a lot can happen between now and then, including fatigue with what is starting to look like a year-long election campaign.

Ultimately, the fight in 2015 may have little to do with personal flare, sharp rhetoric or even party position.

Rather, Quebecers may well opt for a simpler political calculus, namely, siding with whichever party is most likely to defeat a Conservative government with which they have never felt quite at home.


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