CANADA

Following the trend

BARRY CAME June 27 1994
CANADA

Following the trend

BARRY CAME June 27 1994

Following the trend

Quebec’s bellwether riding leans PQ—but shuns sovereignty

BARRY CAME

On the terrace at the Club Nautique in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the members are in a mellow, mid-afternoon mood. They sit in the shade under the parasols at the round white tables, relaxing with cold drinks after a hot morning sailing on the glittering Richelieu River. The talk, not surprisingly, is mostly about boats, the expensive kind that line the wharfs on the river’s amber waters at their feet. “Listen to them,” says Jérôme Proulx, cradling a frosty beer as he casts a critical eye over the patrons on the sunsplashed terrace. “There may be a lot of excitement in the rest of the country about the coming vote in Quebec, but you won’t find much of it here. These people are not thinking about elections, much less independence.”

He sips his beer, snorts. “It’s obviously the last thing they have on their minds.”

Not quite the last, perhaps, but Proulx does have a point. And the 64-year-old retired politician is certainly more qualified than most to comment on the fabled voting habits of the residents of the historic old town on the west bank of the Richelieu, 30 km southeast of Montreal. For 14 years, in three separate political incarnations, he held the riding in the provincial legislature, first for the nowextinct Union Nationale party, then as an Independent and finally as a member of the Parti Québécois. Like Proulx, the 44,000 voters of St-Jean—both the town and the constituency of the same name—have demonstrated a remarkable ability to sniff the shifting political winds in Quebec. Voters have bucked the provincial trend only once in 27 provincial elections all the way back to 1892: in 1936, they failed to vote for Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale standard-bearer. In choosing a candidate from the winning side in every other election, St-Jean voters have earned a reputation as the most reliable barometer of public opinion in the province.

They are justly proud of their renown, even if most are a little mystified about the reasons for it. According to Proulx, it has much to do with the fact that the constituency is “a perfect microcosm of Quebec”—a place that has somehow captured the formula for what Proulx describes as a flair for “mirroring what the average Quebec voter is thinking and feeling at any particular point in time.” If this is true today, as it has been so often in the past, then there may well be a few lessons to be learned in St-Jean, particularly by those in other parts of Canada who have grown so exercised in recent weeks about the political

‘Maybe people are bored with the whole sovereignty debate’

events unfolding in Quebec. A PQ triumph is beginning to look almost inevitable in the riding, just as it is in most of French-speaking Quebec. What is not so inevitable in the constituency is a vote in favor of Quebec independence, again in line with provincewide trends. But the most noteworthy aspect of the prevalent mood in St-Jean is the marked lack of public passion about either the upcoming election, now widely expected to take place on Sept. 12, or the referendum on independence that PQ Leader Jacques Parizeau has promised to hold about 10 months after his party wins power. “It’s just not something that pops up in general conversation,” says Robert Blanchard, the 58-year-old owner and manager of the Canadian Tire franchise in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. “It’s not as if people around here are not aware of what’s coming. I guess it’s in the back of everybody’s mind, out there like a tornado ready to descend.” Across town at the Dominion Blueline factory, manufacturers of office paper products, George Savoy thinks he has at least part of the answer. “Maybe people are just plain bored with the whole sovereignty debate,” says the 64-year-old chairman of the board of the company that his family has run for four generations. “After all, it’s not as if we haven’t been through all of this before.”

The sentiment is by no means universal in the constituency, which runs in a narrow g band along the west bank of the O Richelieu, all the way from the a border with New York state to

0 Montreal’s dormitory suburbs on

1 the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. But it is a view

1 that is repeated often enough to o lend credence to the claim that 5 the people in the riding have E other matters on their minds besides the electoral fortunes of the political parties and the merits—or otherwise—of independence. “I’d rather talk about the Expos,” says Réjean Ouellette, 32, a trucker in St-Paul-de-l’Ile-aux-Noix, a pretty village in the riding’s southern reaches, near the point where the Richelieu begins its run from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence.

The situation may well undergo a dramatic change once the long-anticipated election campaign actually begins. For it is true that while the current relaxed attitude reflects trends elsewhere in Quebec, it is also the result of conditions peculiar to St-Jean. “There’s a kind of temporary truce in effect right now between all the contenders in the political arena here,” notes Marc-Olivier Trépanier, political reporter for the venerable, 135-year-old Le Canada Français, a St-Jeanbased weekly paper. “Everybody has agreed to join forces to fight the federal government’s decision to close the Collège militaire royal in St-Jean and shut down most of the operations at the armed forces base here.”

That co-operation runs right across the political spectrum, including St-Jean riding’s Liberal incumbent, Michel Charbonneau, his PQ opponent Roger Paquin, and the federal MP for the area, Claude Bachand of the Bloc Québécois. In the local political context, the result has been a dampening of tensions. Without the joint effort to save the college and the nearby military language school, a hotly contested battle for the seat in the impending provincial election could already be under way. That, in turn, might have helped to ignite passions that for the moment are dormant.

There has, as well, been another result of the Collège militaire royal affair. “I don’t think it has convinced anybody here about the value of Canadian federalism,” says PQ contender Paquin, a 47-year-old biologist and professor at the local community college. Paquin is making his second run for the seat in Quebec’s National Assembly, having been beaten the last time around by Liberal Charbonneau, a 45-year-old trucking company executive and former mayor of the town of Napierville, who ran up a 5,000-vote majority in 1989.

Charbonneau’s chances of repeating that feat in the coming vote are slim. Despite his prominent role in the ongoing effort to save the college, even Charbonneau acknowledges that his prospects have probably been dimmed by Ottawa’s decision. “I certainly can’t say that it’s helped me much,” he glumly remarks. At the same time, Charbonneau may also find himself the victim of the St-Jean electorate’s well-developed penchant for voting with the winning side no matter what the popularity or track record of the local candidate.

The latest opinion survey, conducted from June 10 to 15 by the Montreal polling firm Léger & Léger, gives the PQ a five-point provincewide lead in party preference—46 per cent for the Péquistes against 41 per cent for the Liberals. Among francophone voters, however, Léger & Léger’s pollsters found a yawning gap: 42 per cent of French-speaking voters prefer the PQ while only 23 per cent backed the Liberals. Given the linguistic makeup of St-Jean, that does not augur well for Charbonneau and the Liberals. Close to 92 per cent of the constituency’s voters are francophone; a scant four per cent are English-speaking, while the other four per cent have a mother tongue that is neither French nor English.

Even staunch federalists in St-Jean concede that the Liberals have an uphill battle if they want to hold on to the riding they recaptured from the Péquistes in former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa’s Liberal sweep in 1985, and retained during Bourassa’s more closely contested re-election in 1989. There is a new man at the Liberal helm now, however. And judging by most of the signs, Premier Daniel Johnson is not having much of an impact with the voters of St-Jean. “Johnson hasn’t lost the election yet, but I fear he is heading in that direction unless we see some dramatic turnaround,” remarks paper manufacturer George Savoy, who calls himself a lifelong federalist.

That does not mean, however, that StJean’s canny voters are committed to the PQ’s drive for Quebec independence. “If the Liberals lose, and I think they will, it won’t be because people around here are voting for separation,” maintains Robert Blanchard at Canadian Tire. “It will just mean they are voting against a party that has probably been in power too long and has not been performing very well of late. The election is one thing, the referendum, if it comes, will be an entirely different matter.”

In Blanchard’s view, there is not much chance that voters in St-Jean will ever cast their ballots for secession. “Folks in these parts are well aware that a divorce is almost always painful,” he says. Last week’s Léger & Léger poll discovered the same sentiment provincewide, finding 52 per cent of Quebec voters opposed to sovereignty, with 47.8 per cent in favor—a drop of four percentage points in support for sovereignty since the company’s previous survey a month earlier. As always, the bellwether voters of St-Jean may well be right on track. □