The political consequences of the coronavirus pandemic are easy to see in Quebec, notably with regard to the Parti Québécois leadership race that was officially launched on February 1, with results to be announced on June 19. Like so much else, plans had to be changed after the pandemic struck. But first, we need to set the stage.

Pre-crisis situation: A party trying to rebuild

The Parti Québécois came out of the October 1, 2018, election with 17.1 per cent of the popular vote, the lowest percentage in its history. With 10 seats in the National Assembly, it ended up behind the Liberals and tied with tthe more left-leaning sovereigntist Québec Solidaire (QS). However, it lost its status as second opposition party to QS because one PQ MNA quit the party shortly after the election to sit as an independent, leaving the PQ in last place in the National Assembly.

Both the PQ and the Quebec Liberal Party were hurt badly by the backlash against traditional parties and the turn toward more populist parties that has been witnessed in other Western democracies in recent years. The self-styled nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), headed by François Legault, picked up 74 of the 125 seats with 37.4 per cent of the vote. One explanation for the move of many PQ supporters to the CAQ and QS in 2018 lies in the dubious strategy adopted by PQ leader Jean-François Lisée on the national question: a promise to hold a referendum after 2022 once he was elected to a second term. As a result, many left-leaning sovereigntists, especially young people, switched to Québec Solidaire, which was able to win several seats outside its Montreal base. Simultaneously, with independence off the table, it was easy for many francophone nationalists who lean to the right to switch from the PQ to the “anti-establishment” CAQ headed by a popular former PQ cabinet minister. (Non-francophones didn’t trust Legault’s federalist stance and stuck with the Liberals.)

The PQ establishment realized that a serious renewal was called for if the PQ were to climb its way back up to serious party status again. Lisée resigned, an interim leader was named and the leadership race was postponed to allow time for a renewal process to take place. The reasoning was that as a result of this process the leadership candidates would be bound to the will of the party members. Whether that reasoning was sound remains to be seen.

So in the spring of 2019, a special policy convention was called for the fall of that year. The objective of the convention would be to adopt a new “Statement of Principles” and new statutes, restructuring the party. The process was also designed to rally support and reach out to new members. As it turned out, the mobilizing efforts were far from successful. The process got very little media coverage and, with so few ridings represented by PQ MNAs, no adequate organization was in place even to reach existing members effectively.

The convention nevertheless was held in November 2019 and a new Statement of Principles was adopted, as well as new statutes. The statement puts an emphasis on independence (the vocabulary has moved away from sovereignty), without proposing any timeline. The challenges addressed are the permanence of the French language, along with climate change, inequality and trust in democratic institutions.

It lays out in four paragraphs the fundamental values guiding the party:

  • freedom – Quebec will only be free once its citizens are;
  • justice and equity – the health of a society is measured by its level of well-being and quality of life;
  • nationalism – defined by the PQ as a value of openness, inclusion and unity;
  • protection of the inherited environment as an expression of Quebec’s identity.

At least one attempt to add a reference to social democracy to the statement was voted down.

The revised statutes create a new category of “sympathizers” (sympathisants). For $5, anyone can sign up to be a PQ sympathizer and vote for the new leader, without being a party member (party membership costs $10 and allows one to stand for office within the party and be an observer at party meetings that are not in camera). This “sympathizer” category would seem to be largely geared to filling party coffers, but it also makes the outcome of the leadership race more difficult to call for reasons which will be discussed later.

The Campaign Coordinating Committee set a spending limit of $125,000, including a nonrefundable $25,000 payment to the party to get on the leadership ballot. Only donations from individuals eligible to vote in Quebec are accepted, all must go through the office of the Chief Electoral Officer and the maximum individual donation allowed is $500 (in elections, the maximum donation allowed is $100). Finally, each candidate must gather 2,000 signatures of active PQ members from at least 50 ridings and nine regions. The original deadline for submission of applications – including the $25,000 and 2,000 signatures – was April 9, with the results of the vote (online or by phone) to be announced at a big event on June 19, just before Quebec’s national holiday (the Fête Nationale, still commonly referred to by its former name of La Saint-Jean) on June 24.

But it was not to be. The first COVID-19 case in Quebec was detected on February 28. Three weeks later, the deadline for the submission of nomination papers was pushed to April 30, and then it was suspended entirely. The collection of signatures and donations were suspended at the end of March. At the time of writing, announcement of the final vote was scheduled for August 28, which will allow the party to have a new leader before the fall session begins (virtually?) in September.

The ex-minister, the comedian and the others

With all attention focused on dealing with the effects of the virus, no one is much interested in the campaign among the six candidates. The party has had a very difficult time convincing a woman to run. The most obvious female contender, MNA Véronique Hivon, announced early on that she would not be in the race, and it wasn’t until the second week in March that Gloriane Blais announced her candidacy. Blais, however, is a complete unknown outside her Mégantic region, where she ran and lost four times. By mid-April, she had raised $175 according to the Chief Electoral Officer’s website.

One of the five male candidates, Laurent Vézina, is also an unknown, so the contest is among four white francophone men, all between 43 and 51 years of age, which doesn’t do a whole lot to project an image of change.

Sylvain Gaudreault is the only candidate with a long and solid history in the party. He is openly gay, married, an MNA from the Saguenay region for more than 13 years, and a respected former minister in Pauline Marois’s PQ government (2012–14). His website and – more importantly in this campaign so dependent on social media – his Facebook page present concrete proposals linked to coming out of the COVID-19 crisis. He clearly understands the tools of government. His proposal relies heavily on green infrastructure projects and a green economy, including transitional programs to train workers for the new types of jobs this will involve. He even proposes to negotiate full constitutional powers over the environment for Quebec.

He is inclusive in his approach to what it means to be a Quebecer and decidedly leans to the left of the political spectrum. He supports the idea of a referendum during the first mandate, while recognizing that it is an uphill battle. He has so far the public support of two current and three former PQ MNAs and, interestingly, that of Lucie Papineau, former MNA and riding president for Prévost where rival Paul St-Pierre Plamondon ran in 2018. While he is a competent and articulate speaker, as evidenced in his videos, and sets out his position well, his often acknowledged lack of charisma could be his biggest drawback, given that he is running against a professional stage performer (see below). He had raised over $42,000 by mid-April, perhaps a sign that his experience and party networks are working in his favour.

Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, at 43 the youngest of the candidates, has raised only slightly less money than Gaudreault. He is a lawyer who joined the PQ and started contributing to it financially in 2016, when he entered the leadership race after the resignation of Pierre-Karl Péladeau. While he sought to take advantage of his network as cofounder of Génération d’Idées, whose mission was to encourage young Quebecers to become politically and socially involved, his ambition to enter party politics did not go over especially well. After his results on the first ballot were in the single digits, he threw his support, such as it was, to Jean-François Lisée. This was enough to get Lisée over the finish line, and PSPP, as he is known, was rewarded with a contract to prepare a report on how to widen the party’s base, particularly among young people, but the recommendations were not very well received by a party composed largely of boomers.

PSPP notes that he has lived and studied in Sweden but avoids identifying Sweden as any kind of model, instead staying very safe in his positions: pro-environment, pro–equality for women, pro-independence – nothing that would allow him to be identified to the right or the left. His platform, which ignores the diversity dimension, targets suburban rather than urban voters. He proposes a referendum in his first mandate and lowering immigration levels by close to 30 per cent to protect the French language.

Frédéric Bastien, a historian who teaches at Montreal’s anglophone Dawson College, has little to say except on matters of identity politics. There are two pillars to his platform: constitutional confrontation and cutting immigration levels by half. A fervent defender of the secularism legislation adopted by the current Legault government, he has “outed” judges he feels are too biased in favour of multiculturalism to ensure they change their behaviour or recuse themselves from rendering decisions on the legislation. He does this by checking which organizations they have agreed to speak to publicly. His has gleefully filled his Facebook page with media stories about the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision not to hear an appeal to suspend the secularism legislation and about the problems Hasidic Jews are having with the pandemic.

On the question of a referendum on independence, unlike the other candidates he would wait for his second term. Note that when Lisée took this position in 2018, Bastien published a book severely criticizing Lisée’s campaign and complaining that Lisée had not listened to him. He has nevertheless gained a high profile, which probably explains why he has managed to raise $23,000, almost enough to cover the amount he will need to recover the deposit required to get on the ballot.

A significant complicating factor in the race is the entry of standup comic Guy Nantel, who joined the party in order to run. While the candidate the most in a hurry to have a referendum, to be held within two years of his being elected, he suggested in an interview with Le Devoir that it be on a form of sovereignty-association, a proposal effectively rejected by the party after the unsuccessful 1980 referendum on that question. In a book published in 2017, Nantel sets out a number of his political positions, from appealing to anglophones by declaring English a national minority language and adding an English symbol to the Quebec flag to a National Assembly made up of 200 MNAs – 100 elected on a purely proportional basis and another 100 picked lottery-style from a list of interested citizens. And, to his credit, he holds that immigration is a plus for Quebec. He devotes much effort to breaking down in lay terms the figures on equalization and other federal programs, to demonstrate that Canada gets more from Quebec than Quebec gets from Canada.

Much of Nantel’s humour is socially and politically based, but it is largely mockery, including of politicians and political parties in general. Aside from his standup shows, he has made quite a name doing short “person-on-the-street” videos for YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, designed to illustrate the low level of political and general knowledge of Quebecers. During the campaign, he has on an almost daily basis been producing six- to seven-minute videos on various subjects, including policies to put in place after the pandemic linked to energy or food self-sufficiency. Others, though, have mocked people he feels go overboard with social distancing.

Still, he cannot be discounted given his prominence – he has 80,000 Facebook fans – and the fact that he has some well-known party organizers behind him. While he had raised less than $15,000 by mid-April, he started at the top among respondents who identified as PQ voters in the only poll published so far (in mid-February) with 38 per cent, compared to 16 per cent for Gaudreault, 5 per cent for PSPP and 4 per cent for Bastien, with 36 per cent undecided.

But it is only PQ members and sympathizers who will be voting. In the context of Quebec’s having to deal with the pandemic and its consequences, could they prefer a comedian over the more sober and experienced Gaudreault? At this point the deadline for recruiting members and sympathizers for voting purposes is August 1. The campaign was officially paused at the end of March, and little recruiting is taking place – although it is possible to sign up on the party website. The wild card is whether Guy Nantel’s fans will actually go to the trouble of signing up as sympathizers.

The pandemic crisis and beyond

As noted, any messages the candidates are managing to get out are carried strictly on social media. None of the mainstream media are picking up on the campaign. So it will probably be some time before any more polling is done. With no party events, it became impossible to gather original signatures, so the party changed the rules to allow for scanned handwritten signatures. Then the process was suspended on March 30. As it stands, when the decision is taken to start up again, the candidates will be allowed to resume fundraising and will have three weeks to collect signatures. A preliminary voters’ list will be provided to the official candidates within five days, but all emails to the voters will be channelled through the party. The rules now allow for the two debates before August 20 to be held by video streaming, with voting to take place August 24 to 28.

Parties normally count on leadership campaigns to boost membership and finances and to whip up some enthusiasm through publicly attended debates and a rousing final announcement event with as many party members as possible squeezed into a limited space. But in the spring and, presumably, summer of 2020, attention is elsewhere. With the pandemic upending democratic processes in Quebec as elsewhere, how many will even bother to vote? It is hard not to wonder what difference it makes who the PQ leader is when the current Premier, like many other heads of government, has popularity ratings off the charts.

However, these popularity figures may well fall dramatically before the next election in 2022, when the economic fallout of the pandemic sinks in. Will the independence movement and its leaders be able to take advantage of the current drive toward self-sufficiency? Will they gain traction in reminding the population of how many important decisions were dependent on another level of government, or will it be the federalists who gain from pointing to the collaborative initiatives taken with the federal government and other provinces to get through the crisis? A lot will depend on how François Legault, himself a former PQ minister, chooses to present himself and his party in the runup to the 2022 election. Stay tuned.