Perched like a pretty dare over the rush of the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City would greatly benefit from Quebec’s eventual graduation to statehood. At least, so goes the argument of Quebec sovereignists. Quebec City, they say, would inherit the governmental heft of a true capital city, the country’s base for its bureaucratic machinery, military command and diplomatic corps. The world’s diplomats would flock to chi-chi pieds-à-terre located in Vieux-Québec, and its airport would befit an international destination, not just Montreal’s touristy afterthought.
Alas, if sovereignty would really be a boon to Quebec City, its citizens have yet to be convinced. For two decades, the region known, perhaps optimistically, as la capitale nationale has been largely allergic to the sovereignist Parti Québécois, the party that would make Quebec City even more of a paradise.
Caused by a variety of economic and ideological reasons—and spread by a very loud crop of talk radio opinionators—this political allergy is proving difficult for PQ Leader Pauline Marois, whose path to a majority government in the upcoming April election is paved in part through this city of roughly 500,000 people. According to recent polls, support for the Liberal party has increased—though not likely out of a sudden affection for leader Philippe Couillard. Rather, there seems to be an “anybody-but-Marois” movement afoot to prevent a PQ majority government—and the likely referendum it would entail.
“We don’t believe in rainbows or butterflies or anything like that. It’s an economic question. Our priorities are health, education and job creation. The citizens here want to avoid a wall, and we are going straight toward that wall when you tell us that the answer is to become a country,” says insurance broker and part-time broadcaster Mario Roy.
The region’s political map reflects his sentiment. Currently, Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) holds seven of 12 Quebec City area ridings; in the 2012 election, four Quebec City CAQ MNAs won by double-digit landslides. The CAQ is right of centre and, despite leader François Legault’s former life as a Péquiste minister, is staunchly against holding another referendum on Quebec’s future. You might say the city’s priorities lie elsewhere: in 2010, Roy organized a rally in support of an NHL franchise in Quebec City, to which 60,000 very cheerful and optimistic people showed up. When in opposition, the PQ tabled a bill to fast-track a new hockey arena in the city. The bill, which became law in the fall of 2011, gave management rights to Quebecor, and was seen as the PQ’s attempt to win the hearts of both former Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau, now a star PQ candidate, and Quebec City.
It’s not as though Quebec City has always been immune to the charms of Quebec’s main sovereignist party. It was a sea of Parti Québécois blue as recently as 1998, in part because it is the home and workplace for the province’s formidable, heavily unionized civil service. Should Péladeau bellyflop in Quebec City, he has no one to blame but himself—or at least his own words. During his announcement to run, Péladeau declared how his “support of the Parti Québécois” was part and parcel of his desire to “make Quebec a country!”
The 24-word declaration, punctuated with a hardy fist pump, helped deflate Péladeau’s own buzz even before it had had a chance to grow, says Roy. “He’s disappointed a lot of people. If he wants to go into politics to address public ﬁnances, by all means go ahead. But to make a country, with your fist in the air?” Roy says, before loudly uttering a religiously themed French curse word. “We see the real PKP now. He’s an adolescent. He’s impulsive. I mean, he went on the radio and called the $9.5 billion that Quebec receives from the federal government a ‘bogeyman’ used to scare Quebecers from the idea of sovereignty. He drank the PQ Kool-Aid,” Roy says.
Still, the Parti Québécois establishment believes the on-the-ground reaction to Péladeau’s candidacy has been overwhelmingly positive. PQ candidate Pierre Châteauvert speaks glowingly of the “Péladeau effect” following the former media magnate’s candidacy. A chief of staff to Péquiste Labour Minister Agnès Maltais, Châteauvert is attempting to unseat Liberal incumbent André Drolet in Jean-Lesage, a largely working-class riding in the city’s northeast.
“When someone of that stature says that, it’s really something. It was great,” he says of Péladeau’s candidacy speech. A long-time leftist, Châteauvert says his ability to exist in the same party as Péladeau is proof of the “cohesion” afforded by Premier Pauline Marois’s leadership. He and Péladeau spent a day campaigning together in the riding. “There was only one person who said they wouldn’t vote for PKP, and I got the feeling from the way this guy spoke that he wasn’t going to vote PQ anyway,” Châteauvert says.
Beyond Châteauvert’s campaign, though, a different picture is emerging. In the early days of the campaign, some talk-radio DJs began talking about an “anybody-but-Marois” strategic vote campaign to block a majority Parti Québécois government. The catch: it means abandoning the CAQ and voting for the Liberals, whose legacy of corruption is still fresh in Quebec’s mindset.
“I’m torn on the anybody-but-Marois thing,” says Dominic Maurais, Quebec’s top-rated morning man. He is a slight, effortlessly quotable man whose body swims in an oversized Colorado Avalanche jersey. Maurais’s problem with Péladeau, apart from the sovereignty issue, is the latter’s apparent embrace of the PQ’s social democratic model of state intervention and big government, which Maurais spends a not inconsiderable amount of time decrying on his radio show. “We realized Péladeau’s not a guy on the right. We realized he’s just like any other social democrat in the PQ, just with more money.”
The CAQ, he says, “has the best ideas, economically, on issues of spending and the debt. But I don’t want a PQ majority because I’m a federalist and I know that would mean another referendum. I don’t know. I guess I’ll make up my mind in the voting booth.”
Quebec City Liberals are more than happy to take the reluctant CAQ votes, heartfelt or not. “They aren’t voting for us, they’re voting against the PQ,” says a smiling former Liberal health minister Yves Bolduc, who holds a relatively safe Quebec City seat. During a recent campaign stop at a bowling alley in his Quebec City riding, CAQ MNA Gérard Deltell called strategic voting a “crime against democracy.” Bolduc bristles at the thought. “It’s a fight between two parties, and Philippe Couillard has said it over and over on the campaign trail: a vote for the CAQ is a vote for the PQ, and a vote for the PQ is a vote for a referendum.”
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Liberals, but CAQ voters are hardly the only ones in a bind in what is fast becoming a two-horse electoral race between the respective parties of Couillard and Marois. Péladeau oversaw 14 lockouts during his tenure at Quebecor, according to figures from the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, the province’s largest union federation. Both it and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux have criticized Péladeau’s purported free-market, anti-union overindulgences.
Yet many PQ supporters, including former union organizer and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, now find themselves holding their nose and endorsing Péladeau regardless—if only because the former Quebecor CEO might help the sovereignist cause. As the would-be capital of a sovereign Quebec shows, there are about as many people who will hold their nose and vote Liberal to stop him.