The Conservatives’ Quebec fortress is under siege by Liberals and the Bloc Québécois

BARRY CAME September 13 1993


The Conservatives’ Quebec fortress is under siege by Liberals and the Bloc Québécois

BARRY CAME September 13 1993


The Conservatives’ Quebec fortress is under siege by Liberals and the Bloc Québécois

Reine Hébert is ready, as primed for battle as she has ever been. By way of proof, the diminutive 46-year-old points to the piles of red filing cards on her desk. “On every one of those cards I have the name of a likely Liberal voter—and a potential party worker,” boasts Hébert, a Liberal organizer. She throws an arm towards the window, beyond which roll the suburbs of Brossard, opposite Montreal island on the St. Lawrence River’s south shore. “I’ve got 15,000 red cards for this riding alone,” she continues, “and we’re in almost the same shape in each of the other 14 ridings I’m helping to organize.” Pausing to stub out an ever-present cigarette,

Hébert declares: “It’s time to get the show on the road.”

The show, of course, is the federal election campaign. And for those who anticipate the end of the Conservatives’ nine years of dominance in Quebec, there is an understandable impatience to get on with the job. Brian Mulroney’s Tories have ruled the province federally ever since Sept. 4,1984, when they captured 58 of its 75 seats. In 1988, the Tories raised their Quebec total to 63 seats. And now, despite defections to the Bloc Québécois in 1990 and two byelection losses, the PCs have 56 Quebec seats. The Liberals hold nine, the Bloc Québécois eight and the New Democrats one (one seat is vacant).

But the next Parliament is likely to be far different. Most polls suggest that the province’s voters are almost equally divided among Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s Tories, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals and Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Québécois. Even partisan observers like Hébert, a Liberal organizer for the past 20 years, concede that the race is likely to be close. “I have a hunch that we are going to see an awful lot of contests decided by less than

a thousand votes,” she says.

All three of the main contenders enter the campaign with proven strengths and glaring weaknesses.

The Bloc Québécois is, in many ways, best positioned. The Bloc was founded in July, 1990, by Bouchard, a onetime Tory cabinet minister who broke with Mulroney over the government’s lastgasp efforts to save the Meech Lake accord. With a small band of unhappy Quebec MPs from both the Tories and the Liberals, Bouchard launched an assault against the

Canadian federation from within Parliament. Over the past three years, poll after poll has ranked the avowedly separatist party as the favored choice of between 30 and 40 per cent of Quebecers. And until Campbell’s recent surge, Bouchard has been the province’s most popular politician. Buried within those figures is an even more significant statistic. Among Frenchspeaking Quebecers, the Bloc’s support has held steady at about half of decided voters. “In francophone ridings,” says Bob Dufour, the Bloc’s chief organizer, “I think we are going to be pretty hard to beat.”

The Bloc’s campaign, in fact, is unashamedly geared towards the francophone majority. Not one of the 70 Bloc candidates nominated so far is an anglophone. Only five are drawn from the province’s burgeoning immigrant population. While Bloc officials publicly bemoan the lack of representation from beyond the ranks of the “pure wool” French-speaking majority, they make no attempt to attract non-francophone candidates. And they readily acknowledge the impact. “It means that we have no chance at all in 15 or 20 ridings, mostly at the western end of Montreal island,” Dufour says.

The Bloc’s stated goal is to send 50 separatist MPs to Ottawa. Privately, the figure is lower, somewhere between 35 and 40 seats. The party appears to have the organizational muscle to accomplish the task, thanks to the support of the like-minded Parti Québécois (PQ), many of whose members worked for the Tories in 1984 and 1988. It also has the mon| ey, largely as the result of a timely $1.5-million loan from 1 the pro-nationalist Desjardins 8 credit union movement. But Quebecers historically vote in waves for the party they believe will best represent their interests in Ottawa—usually the party poised to take power. The Bloc’s seat count may depend on its ability to convince Quebecers that their best interests lie with a party dedicated entirely to defending Quebec’s view, but which has no chance at winning power. The party’s best-case scenario is to hold the balance of power in a divided House of Commons.

But in the end, the Bloc may lack the quality candidates required for a major electoral breakthrough. The party has been unable to attract any of the nationalist vedettes, or stars. Most highprofile sovereigntists have chosen to hold their fire until next year’s expected provincial election. Aside from Bouchard and a few others—such as former PQ cabinet minister Francine Lalonde, running in the east-end Montreal riding of Mercier—most of the party’s standard-bearers are known only locally. The list of candidates is lacklustre enough to lend credence to the charge that the Bloc is the “B Team” of the Parti Québécois.

For Quebec’s Liberals, the problem is exactly the reverse. While the party has been able to field a slate of high-profile contenders, Liberal fortunes in the province are hamstrung by the unpopularity of the leader, Jean Chrétien. “For most francophone Quebecers, Chrétien is a bad dream, a nightmare even,” claims Bloc Québécois candidate Lalonde.

Although Lalonde’s view is frankly partisan, the polls suggest that it is well-founded. A survey conducted in late August by the respected CROP polling firm found that only 11 per cent of Quebec respondents have confidence in Chrétien’s leadership. Campbell, in contrast, was the choice of 36 per cent of Quebecers, while Bouchard received a 23per-cent approval rating.

Chrétien’s image is so poor in Quebec that even some Liberals consider it possible that he will lose the St-Maurice riding, which includes his birthplace, Shawinigan, halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. The Conservatives, wounded by charges of sexual impropriety levelled against Denis Pronovost, the riding’s sitting MP, do not appear to be much of a threat in St-Maurice. But the Bloc is running onetime New Democratic Party candidate Claude Rompré against Chrétien. Rompré, who was an aide to former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, ran ahead of the Liberals in 1988, and may do even better with the Bloc. “Chrétien is probably safe as long as the voters in St-Maurice think they are voting for a prime minister,” cautions one Liberal organizer. “But watch out if they start to get the idea that he is not about to carry the rest of the country.”

Faced with Chrétien’s low level of personal appeal, the Liberal campaign strategy in Quebec is designed to sell the party as a team. Of the 72 candidates nominated, over

a dozen carry the kind of credentials that can pave the way to a cabinet post. Marcel Massé, a highly respected former federal mandarin running in Hull/Aylmer, heads a list that includes, among others, former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister Clifford Lincoln and former Quebec City mayor Jean Pelletier.

The Tories’ main strength in Quebec is the individual at the helm. Like other Canadians, Quebecers test-drove the Campbell band-


wagon early in the year, then abandoned it as the leadership race heated up. Since then, her popularity has rebounded, and she has won grudging approval from the province’s intelligentsia for announcing, among other things, her intention to transfer administration of manpower training to the province. Says one Tory organizer: “I think I’m beginning to see the start of a ground swell.”

That is clearly wishful thinking. For a start,

the Tories are notoriously weak on the ground. “In 1984 and 1988, it was the Parti Québécois machine that put the Tories in power,” says Bloc organizer Dufour. “That machine is now working for us.” To make matters worse for Campbell, Premier Robert Bourassa’s provincial Liberal machine, which also had a hand in both of Mulroney’s sweeping victories, has so far remained largely on the sidelines. Furthermore, a succession of political and personal scandals among the Tories’ parliamentary ranks has tainted and discredited the party.

Still, the Conservatives are not without assets. “They have all the money,” glumly notes former Tory MP Pierrette Venne, seeking re-election as a Bloc candidate in the Montreal suburb of St-Hubert. In addition, the Toiy slate includes such heavyweights as Deputy Prime Minister Jean Charest, Finance Minister Gilles Loiselle and Privy Council President Pierre Blais. Jean Lesage, namesake and grandson of the founder of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, is running for the Tories against Venne in StHubert. All the same, the Tories’ decadelong dominance of federal politics in Quebec may be nearing an end. And the manner in which Quebecers choose to fill that void seems sure to have repercussions far beyond their borders.


in Montreal