Café Zénob is a basement-level bar off the main strip in Trois-Rivières, a city of 140,000 that’s an hour-and-a-half (and, locals like to think, a million miles) from Montreal. Every October for 23 years it has hosted le Festival international de la poésie; for the price of a pint visitors can hear poets from five continents read their work. Tina Charlevois read there recently, as did Luis Alberto Arellano. After each reading, host Gilles Devault utters a mandatory benediction of sponsors, mostly a gaggle of government agencies. “I’d like to thank Heritage Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ministry of Tourism and Quebecor. I’ve probably forgotten some, but it’s not like they’re here,” he said, eliciting a rarity: boisterous laughter from poets and their fans.
Trois-Rivières’ poetry festival is a clear rebuke to the assumption, popular outside the province, that culture is strictly the domain of a plush, arty Montreal-based clique. Its popularity—it marks one of two times a year where all hotels in the city are booked solid—suggests the Conservative government wildly misjudged the Quebec electorate when it cut some $45 million in cultural grants.
Ostensibly part of the Conservatives’ plan to attract the vote outside of Montreal, the cutting of cultural grants has instead become the opposition’s weapon of choice to pillory Harper’s candidates in the very districts he needs in order to win a majority. Many of these candidates, including Trois-Rivières’ Claude Durand, have ducked public debates where the cuts have become l’ordre du jour.
As brash as they seem, though, the cultural cuts aren’t without precedent in terms of angering Quebecers. The Harper government trimmed between $20 million and $30 million from the province’s economic development grants in June, prompting howls from critics and alienating Quebec Premier Jean Charest.
The economic development grants are a mainstay of Quebec’s research and development sector. Federal grants have funded the maritime research centre in Rimouski and Université de Laval’s optical research centre, both world leaders in their fields. “It’s a complete absence of vision,” says Régis Labeaume, Quebec City mayor and one of the fiercest critics of the cuts. “It’s free advertising for Canada, and that’s what’s aggravating to me. It’s the stupidity of the thing. It’s been very damaging for Harper in the region.”
Labeaume might be considered a natural ally for Harper. Elected just under a year ago, he is business-minded, frank and unburdened by allegiances to any sovereignist party. He also rules over fertile territory: the clutch of seats that served as a Conservative beachhead since 2006, and which Harper himself has targeted. There is an entrepreneurial streak running through this region, as well as a history of voting Conservative (often, Stéphane Dion’s Liberals haven’t even bothered with campaign signs). Yet Labeaume says he can’t even get Harper on the phone. “The mayors of the 10 biggest cities in Canada should have the PM’s ear, but I don’t have it. I have Jean Charest’s ear, but not Stephen Harper’s.”
“The Conservatives have taken the Quebec City region for granted,” says Dominic Maurais, host of the city’s top-rated morning show. Maurais is another would-be Conservative who in two weeks has grown disillusioned with the Conservative platform—or lack thereof. “There is no economic development plan for the regions outside of Montreal. The economy is going so well. Yet we have no leadership here to deal with the labour shortage, or on how to get more immigrants to the area. And we speak bloody bad English, which hurts us globally.”
Jean Charest, meanwhile, has proven to be another headache for the Conservative campaign. Rather than tacitly supporting the party, as most of the province’s punditocracy predicted, he has instead repeatedly attacked the Harper government on both the cultural and economic development fronts. The Quebec premier presented a list of 14 demands, including control over cultural spending in the province—all of which were immediately endorsed by the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe. It is a measure of Harper’s woes in the province when a sovereignist leader endorses the ideas of the Conservatives’ closest provincial ally.
Barely a month ago, polls and pundits alike said the province was Harper’s to lose; now, it seems less and less likely the road to a Conservative majority runs through Quebec.