Justin Trudeau was his usual schmaltzy, painfully earnest, bilingual self last night, and good lord did the crowd eat it up. Outside of church or your average Justin Bieber concert, you rarely see so many enraptured faces and hands clasped over hearts. And you know what? Good for him. Even though there is a certain Gouda quality to his delivery, and even if his frequent cozy bromides to Canada may set one’s teeth on edge, this much is true: Trudeau believes every word that flows out of his mouth. When he says he loves Canada, over and over, it’s not because he’s trying to convince you of as much. It’s because he really means it, perhaps more and more every time he says it.
In Quebec, that is part of the problem. At least, so goes the prevailing wisdom in the province. The thinking is this: much like his father before him, Trudeau is an Ottawa-first centralisateur who sees Quebec as just another province. Not only did he stifle Quebec’s collective will by running a campaign of fear during the 1980 referendum, he had the gall to jam the Charter of Rights and Freedoms down the province’s gullet in its aftermath. Pierre Trudeau, said red-headed separatist firebrand Pierre Bourgault in 1990, “never ceased to violently attack Quebecers.” And like his father, Trudeau fils will only embarrass himself and his party if he tries his hammy I-Love-Canada schtick outside a few cloistered ridings on the island of Montreal.
Nationalists like Bourgault birthed the theory that thanks to their long memories and freakish sense of betrayal, Quebecers despised Trudeau (and by extension the Liberal brand) en masse. Alas, it doesn’t really square with the facts. Trudeau won a majority of Quebec seats (if not always the popular vote) in each of his elections, despite his well-known reputation as a separatist-baiting so-and-so. Sure, his party took a bath in the province in the wake of the repatriation of the constitution, but that had arguably as much to do with high debt and a morose economy as it did bruised feelings in Trudeau’s province of birth. And anyway, if there was a hate-on for Trudeau, it was pan-Canadian in nature: in 1984,
two years seven months after Trudeau took his walk in the snow, Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives trounced the Liberals across the country.
Ah, but Trudeau’s legacy continued to haunt his party’s fortunes in Quebec, right? Not really. In 1993, despite the advent of the Bloc Québécois, Jean Chrétien still managed to win 33 per cent of the vote in the province. During the next two elections, Liberal fortunes in the province rose: 38 per cent in 1997, 44 per cent in 2000. For sovereignists, it was almost worse than losing ground to Trudeau; they were losing ground to Trudeau’s bagman. And the Bloc has never reached the 50 per cent threshold in voter support, despite Gilles Duceppe’s inclusive-sounding “Quebec values in Ottawa” spiel.
If Trudeau has a problem in Quebec, it isn’t his love for what he called the “magnificent, unlikely country” he wishes to one day govern. It’s the Liberal Party’s attempts to try and sell that magnificent, unlikely country back to Quebecers. Quite simply, the Sponsorship scandal ruined the Liberal brand in the province, and it has yet to recover. Strange but true: forking out $100 million to various advertising and branding agencies without much oversight and with even less results isn’t such a hot idea. Just ask Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Neither Liberal leader was involved in the Sponsorship Scandal, yet both suffered from its fallout in Quebec nonetheless. (With 24 and 14 per cent of Quebec’s voter share, respectively.)
The collapse of the Bloc and Quebec’s cynicism-free embrace of the NDP show that being a Canada-loving federalist like Jack Layton isn’t a liability at all. Just the opposite, in fact: according to a recent Ipsos-Reid poll, 30 per cent of Bloc Québécois voters thought Trudeau was the country’s best Prime Minister, and only eight per cent thought he was the worst. In this respect, the Trudeau name isn’t nearly the liability Quebec nationalists would like to think. Unfortunately for young Trudeau, the same can’t be said for the party he hopes to lead.