Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Quebec Factor is Back

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Since the birth of Canada in 1867, Quebec has been an influential player in determining the country’s leadership. Throughout the country’s history, Quebec has played an important role in federal politics, most notably in modern times. Not only have Quebecers (Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin) occupied the seat of the Canadian Prime Minister for over 36 years (1968 to 2006), but throughout those years, the pro-independence movement in Quebec has had a persistent impact on the conduct of federal politics.

Until the 1993 federal general election, it was conventional wisdom in Canadian electoral politics that no party could form a majority government in the Canadian House of Commons without some significant Quebec representation. This changed with the emergence of the pro-independence Bloc Québécois, which took the majority of seats from the province of Quebec, thereby becoming the Official Opposition. The Bloc went on to become a dominant voice for Quebec in the federal parliament in every subsequent election until the last electoral rendezvous in 2011. It is fair to say that Quebec’s absence within the federal power structure curtailed its influence and gradually resulted in its decline as a player in federal politics over the next two decades.

In the 2011 general election, the Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, won a majority government with only five seats out of 75 coming from Quebec.  The Bloc, dominant since 1993, literally collapsed, with the left-leaning and pro-federalist New Democratic Party (NDP) winning 58 seats and becoming the Official Opposition. Once again, the Quebec electors had chosen an opposition party as their major representative in the federal parliament. Admittedly, this time they had chosen a federalist party as opposed to a separatist one to oppose the newly elected federal government.  Still, it did not reverse the apparently declining role of Quebec within the federal power structure, since the proportion of ministers from Quebec within the victorious Conservative government continued to decrease. 

Recent events, however, may indicate a shift. Just recently, a newspaper story (in Canada’s Globe and Mail) emerged reporting that Prime Minister Harper is contemplating an all-out offensive to regain support in the predominantly French-speaking province for the 2015 election campaign. 

Opposition leader and Quebec Member of Parliament (MP) Tom Mulcair of the NDP, as well as another Quebec-based MP and Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, will surely have other plans, but the field may become more crowded than originally expected. In addition, one can never exclude a resurgence, though unlikely, from the separatist Bloc Québécois.

A close look at the various polls published in the past year shows that Quebec voters do intend to have a greater say in the upcoming election.  Quebec may soon emerge as the key battleground (in addition to voter-rich Ontario) in the next federal election. Favorite sons like Mulcair and Trudeau may widely dominate the field with Quebec voters at this time.  But expect the ruling Conservatives to put up a fight in some key regions of the province and force the electoral debate on the economy—the preferred issue of the incumbent government.

Is it possible, then, that the next elected federal government will return to the pre-1993 conventional wisdom and have a strong Quebec representation?

It is too early to predict, but if the Liberals with the charismatic Justin Trudeau maintain their current lead in the national polls, their Quebec performance could determine whether they will form a majority government or a minority government, or hold the balance of power.

Tom Mulcair and the NDP have proven to be an effective and steady Official Opposition, and their leader remains the most popular politician in Quebec.  A strong performance in Quebec by Mulcair, despite Trudeau’s strong numbers elsewhere in the country, could also mix the cards and result in a minority parliament situation. Again, in this case, a Quebec-based federalist party could hold the balance of power in the Canadian House of Commons .

Harper’s Conservatives are currently in fourth  place in the Quebec polls, but they have some legitimate hopes in some rural ridings, and particularly in the Quebec City region.  It is possible the more conservative segments of the population could be sensitive to Harper’s call and surprise the pundits.

At this stage, we can assume that Quebecers will likely concentrate their attention on the three pro-federalist parties in the upcoming 2015 federal election, rather than contribute to the revival of a pro-independence Bloc Québécois.

While we may be far from the pre-1993 conventional wisdom, one thing is certain: Quebec will likely be a determining factor in who will govern Canada after the next election—for the first time in more than two decades.  This is good news for Canadian democracy and federalism, and particularly for Quebec’s voice in Canadian political life.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada Elections, Quebec
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