QUEBEC — If last Saturday’s march against Bill 96 was any indication, many voters in Montreal — particularly minority voters — are in a foul and frustrated mood.
Perhaps they feel nobody has been listening, but the question in the wake of Saturday’s language protest — the biggest in years, drawing thousands — is whether this animosity will be reflected in the fall’s general election and affect results in provincial Montreal ridings.
It happened in 1989, when the English-speaking community elected four Equality Party members in their anger over a broken Liberal promise on the language of signs.
With less than five months to go before the Oct. 3 election, the jury is out on which way the wind will blow this time, but pundits and pollsters agree on one thing: The normally predictable outcome of elections in the island of Montreal’s 27 provincial ridings is now up in the air.
“Usually on election night we can predict in advance which ridings will be Liberal and which not,” veteran pollster Jean-Marc Léger told the Montreal Gazette.
“This time there will really be fights.”
There are many factors that could influence a shift in voting patterns.
The traditional Liberal and Parti Québécois core votes have been collapsing, leaving many Montrealers looking for a new place to roost. And voters will have more options in the form of new parties — some not yet officially recognized — nibbling away at the remaining pool of votes.
This is in sharp contrast to the Liberals’ usual stranglehold on the non-francophone Montreal vote — a key to its success in the 2018 election, which enabled the party to form the official opposition at the National Assembly even though it was wiped out in most regions of Quebec.
Analysts note that the Liberals can no longer count on their hobby horse, the sovereignty versus federalism debate, to drive minorities their way.
Léger’s polling pegged non-francophone support for the Liberals throughout Quebec at 59 per cent in February; by March, that number had dropped to 46 per cent, after the party’s admitted mistake in proposing that anglophone CEGEP students be required to take three core courses in French.
Liberal support among non-francophones was still at 46 per cent in April despite Leader Dominique Anglade’s efforts to patch up relations with the anglophone community, following the party’s admitted mistake in the CEGEP debate at the committee examining Bill 96.
The Liberals are polling at 22 per cent in Montreal. The PQ, which no longer holds any seats on the island, is in even worse shape, polling at nine per cent in the city.
In Léger’s April poll, the non-francophone vote throughout Quebec was splintered: Liberals 46 per cent, Coalition Avenir Québec 19 per cent, Conservative Party of Quebec 16 per cent, Québec solidaire 12 per cent and the PQ one per cent.
In 2018, the Liberals won 19 of the 27 seats on the island of Montreal, the PQ was wiped off the map and Québec solidaire doubled its seat count in the city, taking six ridings.
In a historic breakthrough, the CAQ won its first two island seats: Pointe-aux-Trembles and Bourget, ridings that traditionally voted PQ.
There are other factors explaining the voter volatility. In the last few weeks, many popular veteran Liberal MNAs have announced they are ending their political careers. Eleven of the party’s MNAs have said they will not run for re-election this year.
The list includes Christine St-Pierre (Acadie), Nicole Ménard (Laporte), Gaétan Barrette (La Pinière), Lise Thériault (Anjou—Louis-Riel), Hélène David (Marguerite-Bourgeoys), Francine Charbonneau (Mille-Îles), Jean Rousselle (Vimont), David Birnbaum (D’Arcy-McGee), Monique Sauvé (Fabre), Paule Robitaille (Bourassa-Sauvé) and Pierre Arcand (Mont-Royal—Outremont), who was the latest to announce his departure.
Two more are expected to make similar announcements before the legislature recesses for the summer on June 10: Carlos Leitão (Robert-Baldwin) and Kathleen Weil (Notre-Dame-de-Grâce).
Three analysts interviewed by the Montreal Gazette said that while certain western ridings with high concentrations of minority voters are safe, many ridings that the Liberals narrowly won in 2018 could flip.
And competition for votes could be stiff.
The two fledgling minority rights parties — the Canadian Party of Quebec (being formed by language activist Colin Standish) and Mouvement Québec (being organized by former Montreal mayoralty candidate Balarama Holness) — say they will run candidates in Montreal ridings now held by the Liberals.
Those parties have not been officially recognized by Élections Québec, so they do not appear in current polls, but they will be trying to woo disgruntled anglophones and allophones.
Standish and Holness were seen marching in Saturday’s Bill 96 protest and talking to citizens. Holness produced a video at the protest and posted it on Twitter.
The Conservatives are also courting minority voters in Montreal. It has been under-reported, but the party is on the record as opposing Bill 96. Leader Éric Duhaime was quick to agree to an English leaders’ debate and has said he would still be willing to participate even without François Legault; the proposed debate was cancelled after Legault and PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon opted out.
The CAQ has not given up on Montreal either. On May 1 the party announced the names of 15 candidates it will run in island ridings, including many minority community members.
“The Liberals won’t be wiped off the map,” said Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. “The question is how many seats will they lose, and will they lose them to the CAQ or Québec solidaire or one of these new parties?
“Dominique Anglade is in a very difficult situation. Outside of Montreal she needs to improve her numbers among francophones, because otherwise it’s just over. And in Montreal she needs to improve her declining numbers among allophones and anglophones.”
Léger does not envision the minority parties winning seats. They might get votes in ridings like Nelligan and D’Arcy-McGee, he said, but the margin for the Liberals in those ridings is so high that those votes will mean nothing in the seat count.
But the Liberals may suffer in ridings they won narrowly in 2018, Léger said. Anjou—Louis-Riel in east-end Montreal is a good example: the Liberals won the largely francophone riding in 2018 with 39 per cent of the vote, with the CAQ placing second at 29 per cent.
“The real threat (in such ridings) will be the caquistes,” Léger said. “With this shift of votes, I estimate nine of the 27 ridings the Liberals hold could be in trouble.”
If votes start splitting, he said, another big advantage for the CAQ will be anglophone voter apathy, which started to emerge in 2018.
“They didn’t want to vote against the Liberals, so they didn’t vote,” Léger said. “They didn’t have the energy then, and it won’t be there this year with the Liberals so low in the polls.”
Philippe J. Fournier, creator of the poll-aggregating website Qc125.com, recently crunched the numbers and concluded five ridings on the island of Montreal could pivot, from the Liberals to either the CAQ or QS, as a result of voter shifts. QS would like nothing better than to win big and potentially replace the Liberals as the official opposition.
“A big factor is the complete collapse of the PQ vote,” Fournier said. “Those votes are not going to the Liberals. Most of them are going to the CAQ and Éric Duhaime.
“The anglos are not really happy as well. If you add those factors, you could have a low Liberal turnout and the CAQ would win traditional Liberal seats. I’m not talking Westmount.
“The Liberals are in a perfect storm of their own making. Those new parties are not emerging in a vacuum. They exist because the Liberals are tanking.”
Léger and Fournier predict big CAQ wins in Laval as well. The Liberals there hold five of the six ridings, but could face the same effects of vote-splitting as in Montreal.
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