Another new party is poised to break the mould of Quebec politics – or is it?

Even before it became an official party on November 14, 2011, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) had vaulted to the top of public opinion polls in Quebec. Despite its unfortunate-sounding acronym (pronounced “cack,” with its activists designated in the media as “caquistes”), a program that was still very much a work in progress and a leader pundits characterized as less than charismatic, more than a third of voters indicated that they would vote for the new party.

CAQ leader François Legault himself was – along with Pierre Curzi, who until his noisy resignation from the Parti Québécois caucus in June 2011 had been the PQ’s language critic (and a well-known actor who had starred in Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire and many other films) – the most popular political figure in the province. Nearly half (49 per cent) of the respondents had favourable opinions of Legault, compared to 33 per cent for PQ leader Pauline Marois and 28 per cent for Liberal Premier Jean Charest.1 Whatever reservations voters might have had about Legault, they seemed more than happy to have him as the next Quebec premier.

But does the new outfit have legs? In 2007, Mario Dumont’s Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) was poised to break the mould of Quebec politics by eclipsing the Parti Québécois, just as the PQ itself had displaced the Union Nationale during the 1970s. But it was not to be: the mainstream parties managed to beat back the challenge from the newcomer. Will history repeat itself? Recent polls show a marked dropoff in support for the CAQ, and with Pauline Marois having weathered a debilitating schism within her party’s ranks, Legault’s party – which swallowed up what was left of the ADQ early in 2012 – risks meeting the same fate. But the Quebec electorate’s astonishing volatility could still propel the CAQ to major party status. These are the same voters, after all, who massively rejected the Bloc Québécois in the 2011 federal election and generated an “orange wave” of support for Jack Layton, carrying the NDP from one seat in Quebec all the way to Official Opposition status in the House of Commons.

Definitive answers to these questions, of course, elude anyone without access to a reliable crystal ball. But the ADQ’s odd up-and-down-and-up-and-down trajectory should teach us to be cautious before predicting party realignment in Quebec in the coming election, which must be held by December 2013. Like the ADQ, Legault’s CAQ has a powerful trump card in its appeal to Quebec’s disgruntled francophone voters: its promise to shelve the divisive and seemingly neverending debate over Quebec’s constitutional future in favour of concentrating on the province’s intractable economic and social problems.

At the same time, the CAQ seems better positioned than the ADQ ever was to make the necessary electoral inroads into the suburban areas surrounding Montreal. Cofounded by a sovereigntist businessman-technocrat-politician (Legault) and a federalist entrepreneur with strong connections to the Liberal Party (Charles Sirois), the CAQ could conceivably bleed off middle-class, suburban francophone voters from the PQ, especially those unhappy with the quality of the public services they are receiving in exchange for their crushing tax burden. This would allow Legault to graft a suburban metropolitan constituency onto the ADQ’s old fortress in south-central Quebec, and provide his new party with a formidable electoral base of support to rival those of the two mainstream parties. Nonetheless, Quebec’s established parties retain highly effective weapons in their electoral arsenals.

Before addressing the CAQ’s electoral prospects, however, we should know something about where the party came from and just what it is advocating to jolt Quebec out of its quiet complacency and mediocrity.

From the Lucides to the CAQ

On June 25, 2009, François Legault resigned as PQ member of the National Assembly for the riding of Rousseau north of Montreal. An accountant by training, Legault had been one of the cofounders of Air Transat in 1986 and a member of the management boards of well-known Quebec corporations such as Provigo, Culinar and Sico. First elected in 1998, Legault held senior cabinet portfolios – Industry, Health, and Education – in the PQ governments of Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. He was also considered a contender for the leadership of the party, but never threw his hat into the ring. Media observers viewed Legault as a competent politician who had managed to avoid any spectacular gaffes during his tenure in government.

In remarks made at the time of his resignation, Legault lamented that he was quitting politics with a sense of foreboding for his province: “I feel that Quebec has embarked on a quiet decline, and, unfortunately, has too often done so with resignation and indifference.” Pervasive cynicism and distrust of the political class, Legault argued, had sapped the energies and imaginations of voters and activists alike. At such a time, ambitious political projects, such as sovereignty or a renewal of Canadian federalism, were virtually impossible to achieve. Moreover, Quebec’s mainstream political parties were paralyzed in the face of the three biggest challenges facing Quebecers: the widening gap in wealth between Quebec and the rest of North America, the growing inefficiency of the province’s health and education systems, and the crisis of public finances in the province.2

Legault’s diagnosis of Quebec’s political and economic ills echoed that found in the manifesto Pour un Québec lucide (For a Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec), published on October 19, 2005 (see Inroads, Winter/Spring and Summer/Fall 2006). Not long after Legault’s resignation, rumours began to circulate that he and Joseph Facal, a key author of the manifesto and former colleague in the Bouchard and Landry cabinets, were discussing the possibility of founding a new party.

In the spring and summer of 2010 it certainly appeared that there was sufficient room in political space for an organization that would represent the interests of the large swath of voters fed up with the sterile and predictable “debate” between sovereigntists and federalists. Moreover, the ADQ appeared to be locked in a death spiral. Mario Dumont’s successor as party leader, Gilles Taillon, had resigned in November 2009, barely a month into his tenure, as allegations of financial mismanagement and other skullduggery were being slung about and the ADQ was sitting at about 10 per cent in most opinion polls.

Legault’s involvement in the new party meant that it would likely have some appeal to the francophone business community. Facal, for his part, would have helped provide intellectual bona fides for the party: holder of a doctorate in sociology from the Sorbonne, he has authored or coauthored several books and is a prolific blogger and newspaper columnist. While still a member of the PQ cabinet, Facal had actively sought to nudge the party in a more pragmatic direction on economic policy, eliciting the ire of its vocal left wing.

Ultimately, Facal decided against joining Legault as cofounder of a third force in Quebec politics. In his blog, Facal stated somewhat cryptically that while he and Legault shared similar diagnoses of Quebec’s political situation, they did not agree on the steps needed to remedy things or on the prioritizing of the tasks to be accomplished.3 Legault did manage to find another partner, however, in the person of Charles Sirois, Chair of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and past CEO of Bell Mobile Communications and Teleglobe. With his strong connections to the Liberal Party, and his reluctance to play a prominent public role in the CAQ (he will not run in an election), Sirois, in the words of one journalist, plays the federalist Robin to Legault’s sovereigntist Batman.4

In February 2011, Legault and Sirois formed the Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec and over the next six months issued a series of policy pronouncements. The first of these dealt with education, highlighting the crucial importance that Legault and Sirois place on the improvement of Quebec’s “human capital” as the surest route to sustainable economic development. This was followed by consultation documents on the health care system, the economy and the promotion of the French language, all of which were combined in an “Action Plan” released on November 14, 2011, when the CAQ was recognized as an official party.5

The most controversial proposal was to raise public school teachers’ salaries in return for reduced job security, combined with abolition of local school boards to reduce bureaucratic costs (an idea previously floated by the ADQ and downplayed after the plan ran into stiff opposition during an election campaign). Other proposals included:

  • tuition hikes for postsecondary education, coupled with better student loans and a repayment scheme linked to postgraduation income;
  • new methods of financing both doctors and hospitals to encourage greater efficiency;
  • abolition of regional health agencies, again to lower the costs of bureaucracy;
  • a greater role for the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement in the financing of Quebec-based enterprises;
  • a thorough “housecleaning” in public life to deal with widespread corruption in the tendering of government contracts, especially in the construction sector;
  • the creation of a commissioner of public integrity, who would be an officer of the National Assembly endowed with sweeping powers to deal with corruption, collusion and ethical breaches in any form.

Interestingly, the CAQ devoted considerable space in its Action Plan to outlining measures to defend and promote the French language, a signal that it does not intend to cede this key electoral issue to the PQ even if it means ceding the anglophones to the Liberals. Proclaiming that “Quebec needs to be sovereign in matters of language because of its objective reality in North America,” and expressing concern over the “deteriorating” situation of French in the greater Montreal area, the CAQ proposes to increase resources devoted to the integration of immigrants. It also wants to limit the number of immigrants to the province to 45,000 for two years – in 2010, the province admitted just under 54,000 immigrants6 – to allow the new policies for linguistic integration to be implemented. As well, the CAQ pledges to outlaw the use of so-called écoles-passerelles (“bridging schools”), the unsubsidized, private English-language schools that some immigrant families have used in the past to circumvent the provisions in the Charter of the French Language and gain access for their children to the public English-language school system. If necessary, the CAQ would invoke the notwithstanding clause in the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms to pass such legislation.

It is true that these policies did not represent a radical departure from measures that had been proposed by the ADQ. Nonetheless, the CAQ benefited tremendously from its air of “newness” and its apparent willingness to tell it like it is, and thus especially from its promise to put the question of another referendum on the back burner for the foreseeable future. Legault and his allies were waiting for another wave of voter discontent, similar to the “orange wave” that had helped catapult Jack Layton and the NDP to staggering success in the federal election of May 2011. And for a brief time, it appeared as though they might indeed catch such a wave.

The unravelling of Quebec’s party system

In its first three months of official existence, the CAQ was by far the most popular party in opinion surveys, reaching a high of 37 per cent support among decided voters in December 2011.7 On December 19, two former Péquistes, Benoit Charette and Daniel Ratthé, and two former Adéquistes, Éric Caire and Marc Picard, announced that they were joining the CAQ. All four had previously left their parties to sit in the Assembly as independents. In early January, another PQ defector, François Rebello, joined the CAQ. At the time, Rebello – a former student leader with a higher public profile than any of the other newly minted CAQ members – publicly proclaimed his continuing support for Quebec sovereignty, though “the current stakes aren’t about the holding of a referendum, but about choosing the best government led by the best premier.”8 Rebello’s outspokenness has been something of a thorn in Legault’s side.

Negotiations between ADQ Leader Gérard Deltell and Legault culminated in a decision to merge the two organizations. This was ratified by 70 per cent of the 1,373 ADQ members who participated in a partywide vote on the proposal in January 2012. Thus the four remaining ADQ MNAs joined the CAQ grouping in the National Assembly. Formally, it was not a caucus: the President of the Assembly ruled that the CAQ did not qualify as an official party, having only nine sitting members as opposed to the normally required twelve. Neither the Liberals nor the PQ were inclined to make an exception for the CAQ, forcing the nine MNAs to sit as independents and depriving the CAQ of substantial public funds for research expenses.

The early strength of the CAQ was largely the product of the tribulations of its two main competitors. By the end of 2011, Jean Charest’s Liberal government had become one of the most unpopular in Quebec history. Roughly three quarters of respondents in current surveys indicate that they believe the government is on the wrong track, and this level of dissatisfaction has not changed much over the past couple of years. Charest himself is the least popular government leader in the entire country. In power since 2003, the Liberals under Charest have, on balance, a thinner and less impressive record of legislative accomplishment than any other Quebec government since the Quiet Revolution. Charest’s government has been dogged for years by perceptions of scandal and corruption. A case in point was Families Minister Tony Tomassi, who was expelled from caucus in May 2010 amid allegations that he had orchestrated a financial kickback scheme in the awarding of public daycare contracts.9

The Charest government for many months resisted calls for a public inquiry into the role of organized crime in construction contracts, only to finally cave in and establish an inquiry led by Quebec Superior Court justice France Charbonneau. Initially, however, Charest deprived this inquiry of the full powers to subpoena witnesses or grant them immunity. Only after a public outcry did Charest finally relent on this issue, though he appears to be trying to buy time so that the inquiry will not release any damning evidence until after the next provincial election. Small wonder, then, that a sizable majority of Quebecers are convinced that their province is corrupt.10 Yet Charest apparently believes he can win a fourth consecutive mandate and go into the record books with Maurice Duplessis for longevity.

As for the Parti Québécois, it has been on the verge of imploding for some time, though Pauline Marois has recently appeared to right the ship and the party has reestablished itself as the front-runner in public opinion polls. The party’s travails date back to the spring of 2011. Desperate for any gimmick that might reenergize the sovereigntist rank-and-file, Marois endorsed a controversial private member’s bill introduced in the National Assembly in May 2011 by Quebec City PQ MNA Agnès Maltais. The proposed legislation, Bill 204, was designed to shield the city’s municipal government from possible lawsuits over the deal it had struck with media conglomerate Quebecor’s boss Pierre Karl Péladeau to manage a proposed hockey arena to be built with public funds. The goal was to lure a National Hockey League franchise to Quebec City and relive le bon vieux temps of the Battle of Quebec, with the “federalist” Montreal Canadiens taking on their “nationalist” archrivals, the Quebec Nordiques, in annual contests for hockey and cultural supremacy.

Marois tried to whip the vote on Bill 204, making it a matter of principle to support legislation that would, in effect, help bolster the Péladeau empire’s bottom line. This provided the pretext for four PQ MNAs – Pierre Curzi; longtime sovereigntist standard-bearer Louise Beaudoin; Lisette Lapointe, wife of Jacques Parizeau; and Jean-Martin Aussant, the party’s finance critic – to resign from caucus. By the end of the year, eight MNAs had either resigned from the PQ caucus or been expelled by Marois. In almost every case, the dissidents pointed to more important underlying causes for their unhappiness. They singled out Marois’s authoritarian style of leadership as well as her softness on the PQ’s raison d’être, the commitment to hold a third referendum on sovereignty should the party win power again.

Currently, the PQ finds itself outflanked by two pur-et-dur sovereigntist splinter organizations: Québec-Solidaire, the resolutely socialist and indépendantiste party whose leader, the very popular Amir Khadir, sits in the National Assembly; and the Nouveau Mouvement pour le Québec, founded by journalist Jocelyn Desjardins and associated with the Parizeau faction of the PQ. But with the CAQ fading, some moderate PQ supporters, it would appear, have decided to return to the fold.

An enormously unpopular incumbent government and a rival in ideological disarray: these are significant factors favouring the electoral breakthrough of the CAQ. The fact that the two major parties in Quebec keep forcing political discourse into the Manichaean sovereignty-versus-renewed-federalism mould, in spite of the pervasive alienation from the constitutional question among Quebec’s voters, ought to provide an electoral fillip to the newly formed CAQ. So too should the deep-seated unhappiness of Quebec’s voters.

Table 1 contains provincial data from the 2011 Canadian Election Study11 on satisfaction with the way democracy works in Canada. Quebec sticks out in the table, with far lower levels of satisfaction than any of the other provinces. Barely half (50.6 per cent) of Quebec francophones indicate that they are satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada, as compared with 62.4 of their nonfrancophone Quebec counterparts. This could provide a nontraditional party like the CAQ with a pool of alienated francophone voters to mobilize at election time, on the theory that voters unhappy with the state of democracy are more likely to look for partisan alternatives outside the mainstream. Yet there are obstacles to a dramatic breakthrough for the CAQ in the next provincial election, as evidenced by its failure to attract sufficient suitable candidates. The major parties have at their disposal tactical arsenals that might help them beat back the challenge from Legault’s upstart party.

The PQ bounces back?

The ADQ experience of twice being on the cusp of a major breakthrough, only to fall back, is instructive. In the fall of 2002, support for the ADQ suddenly spiked to 35–40 per cent, following surprising byelection wins in four ridings formerly held by the PQ. Three of the four successful ADQ candidates were quite young, like party leader Mario Dumont himself, fuelling the impression that a generational shift in Quebec politics might be in the offing. Yet in the April 2003 election the party won only four seats with 18 per cent of the vote, a victim of the punishment our electoral system inflicts on a third party.

But the decline from 35–40 to 18 per cent was due to another kind of punishment facing the upstart: as the popularity of the ADQ increased, so too did scrutiny of its program. Legault has already encountered some rough waters generated by his party’s proposals to reopen existing collective agreements with teachers and doctors, if need be, or to take on a constitutional challenge to its plan to abolish school boards, proposals which came under heavy scrutiny. This helps explain why, as the election approaches, support has declined, much as it did for the ADQ in 2003: from January to early April 2012, support for the CAQ declined from 33 to 22 per cent.

The second ADQ “moment,” when it appeared to be poised to eclipse the PQ, came about when Dumont’s forces came in second in the 2007 provincial election. And yet, the ADQ crashed back to earth within a year of its near-victory, winning only seven seats on 16 per cent of the vote in December 2008. This was due to the inexperience of the ADQ caucus, but also to strategic policy responses by the Liberals and, especially, the PQ, to take “ownership” of the issue of reasonable accommodation of immigrants.12 The result was that the ADQ was no longer the preeminent voice of francophones on cultural issues and the defender of the Quebec identity.

Something very similar is likely to be at work in the next Quebec election. For the past few years PQ leaders have been stoking linguistic fears in the province, claiming that the very survival of the French language in Montreal is in danger. In electoral terms, this is une stratégie payante, even if it frays relations between the communities and incites scapegoating of immigrants and anglophones – which ought to be at odds with a sovereignist project based on “civic” rather than ethnic nationalism. As table 2 shows, the perception that the French language is threatened correlates strongly with support for sovereignty: almost 62 per cent of those who so believe are favourable to sovereignty, while just under 13 per cent of those who do not see a threat support it. PQ leaders will actively play up the threat in the months leading up to the next election.

One indication came in the latest hysteria to erupt in Quebec – fuelled by Mario Dumont himself on his television program – over the sale of halal meat. The PQ’s agriculture critic, André Simard, said that halal slaughter “collides head-on with Quebec values” and is “less humane than standard industry practices.” For his part, Legault insisted that halal products needed to be clearly labelled: “We are in Quebec and must be an exception.”13 If such issues take centre stage in the upcoming election, the PQ will be able to outflank its new rival on the terrain of Quebec identity and could very well keep the CAQ to no more than 20 per cent. This is little better than the level of support at which the ADQ under Gérard Deltell was tracking just prior to its merger with Legault’s party.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the CAQ’s breakthrough, however, is the fact that its message to voters is a variation on President Obama’s “eat your peas.” It is proposing what amounts to a dose of fiscal realism to voters who have shown little willingness to wean themselves from the magical thinking proffered by the mainstream parties.

Plus ça change …


1 These data are available from the Léger Marketing website,

2 François Legault, “Le déclin tranquille,” Le Devoir, June 26, 2009, retrieved from here

3 “Deux non et un merci,” Le blogue de Joseph Facal, November 22, 2010, retrieved from here

4 Nicolas Van Praet, “The Odd Couple,” Financial Post, October 22, 2011, p. FP1.

5 Agir pour l’avenir : plan d’action présenté par la Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, November 14, 2011.Available in English on the CAQ website here

6 Quebec, Ministère de l’Immigration et des Communautés Culturelles, L’immigration permanente au Québec selon les catégories d’immigration et quelques composantes, 2006–2010,February 2012, Table 1, p. 9.

7 Léger Marketing, “Provincial Voting Intentions in Quebec.”

8 Huffington Post Politics, “François Rebello Defection Marks Another High-Profile Parti Quebecois Loss To New Coalition Quebec Party,” January 9, 2012, retrieved from here

9 Both the PQ and the ADQ skewered Tomassi and the government for having awarded a disproportionate number of contracts to run publicly subsidized daycare centres to individuals who had donated to the Liberal Party. The proximate cause of Tomassi’s expulsion, however, was the fact that he had used a credit card belonging to the security firm BCIA, a big Liberal Party donor, for his personal business.

10 More than a third of respondents in a recent CROP poll were convinced that Quebec was more corrupt than other provinces. See Jean-Herman Guay, “Ouragan politique au Québec,” Policy Options, December 2011–January 2012, p. 37.

11 I would like to thank my colleague in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, Dr. Jason Roy, for his help in analyzing these data.

12 See Bonnie Meguid, Party Competition Between Unequals (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), for an analysis of the ways in which major party responses to the electoral threats posed by minor parties determine the success or failure of the latter.

13 Graeme Hamilton, “Ignorance and Intolerance Drive Food Flap in Quebec,” National Post,March 16, 2012.