by Eric Hamovitch
An often overlooked dimension of the 2014 Quebec election is that of metropolis versus hinterland. Almost from the day the Parti Québécois was founded in 1968, the party has faced tensions between its Montreal-based leadership and voters in non-metropolitan areas where, in more recent times, it has won most of its National Assembly seats.
The cleavage was especially acute in 2007 when many voters outside Montreal abandoned the PQ, then led by André Boisclair, the ultimate Montréalais, an archetype of modern urban values, openly gay, a sharp dresser and a proponent of openness to the world. Mario Dumont, leader of the upstart Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), capitalized on this to win support in wide areas of Quebec where resentment of Montreal’s economic and cultural influence is never far from the surface. When the tiny rural municipality of Hérouxville adopted a xenophobic Code of Conduct, it was enthusiastically embraced by Dumont and just as keenly rejected by Boisclair.
Jean Charest, the Liberal premier of the day, sought to push the issue under the rug. His approach was to appoint a commission on “reasonable accommodations” – and then ignore most of its recommendations. In the 2007 election, the Liberals lost their majority, the ADQ became the official opposition and the PQ was relegated to third place. While the ADQ’s surge was short-lived – it lost most of its seats in another election a year later – its message had been heard.
The Charter of Values needs to be understood in this context. PQ strategists, among them Jean-François Lisée, concluded that the party had to outflank the floundering ADQ (and later its successor, François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec) on identity issues. In Montreal, for which he was responsible as minister in Pauline Marois’s government, Lisée ran into a stone wall when it came to the Charter. An anti-Charter motion in August 2013 won unanimous support from Montreal city councillors, including several prominent Péquistes. In the November 2013 mayoral race, the Charter was backed by just one candidate, who got less than 1.4 per cent of the vote. The message was clear: the Charter was anything but a vote-winner in Montreal. Yet the Marois government was undeterred and called an early election.
The PQ could not expect any breakthrough in Montreal. The largely French-speaking east end of the city has been friendly to the PQ since the party’s founding, but even there its support has been waning. Montreal Island, accounting for just under half the metropolitan population of four million, is notorious for its stability in provincial elections. In 2012, only one of 28 Montreal ridings changed hands (from the PQ to Québec Solidaire), while in 2014 two seats switched, both PQ losses. In one, Sainte-Marie–Saint-Jacques, near downtown Montreal and long a PQ bastion, the PQ incumbent finished third. In two of the four Montreal ridings it did retain, its margins collapsed. As usual, ridings in the island’s west and north, with large English-speaking or immigrant groups, voted solidly Liberal.
Because none of the parties can expect to make major gains, it is easy for them to disregard Montreal at election time. The pastures are greener in the suburbs, especially the more volatile outer suburbs, where the CAQ is a major player and where seats frequently change hands. This has been reflected in long-term infrastructure spending and in the province’s insensitive approach to specific Montreal concerns in areas ranging from municipal status to transportation measures. It remains to be seen if the unusually large number of cabinet ministers from Montreal in the newly formed Liberal cabinet will alter this state of affairs.
Meanwhile, the Parti Québécois has entered what may be a long period of introspection. With its message making no headway in the metropolis (especially among younger Montréalais) and failing to woo the hinterland, what was once a party of youth and hope must choose, for now, between bad and worse.
Eric Hamovitch is a Montreal writer and translator and co-author of several books on Canadian and Quebec politics.