Over the last 15 years, Mario Dumont has played many roles: a fresh-faced Liberal upstart who sided with separatists during the 1995 referendum; a free-market triumphalist intent on breaking Quebec’s tradition of social democracy; a sound clip-obsessed populist who propelled his Action Democratique du Québec party to within an inch of power largely by harping on Quebecers’ fears. Now, having left the party after a colossal defeat in the last election Dumont has a new role: the former ADQ leader will host Dumont 360 on TQS, Quebec’s perennial third-place television station. Dumont has proven there is plenty of room for second acts in Quebec politics, which bodes well for the party he left behind.
The ADQ is in shambles, no doubt. It lost 32 of its 39 seats in last December’s provincial election, thanks to a bungled, listless campaign one observer likened to “throwing garbage against the wall to see what stuck.” The list of potential successors to Dumont’s throne is notable only for the number of people who have said they don’t want the job. Much like the Parti Québecois after the 2007 election, the ADQ is a broke, leaderless cabal relegated to third-party status. Yet a core group of influential adéquistes within the party see Dumont’s departure as an opportunity to bring the ADQ back to its roots as a individualistic, small-government party whose right-of-centre views begin and end with the economy. And, as Mario Charpentier, the party’s interim president, recently told Maclean’s, the ADQ will soften its ‘autonomist’ model and embrace Canadian federalism once and for all.
In a province divided into sovereigntist and (slightly larger) federalist camps, the ADQ has been painfully ambiguous. The party—that is to say Mario Dumont, its only elected MNA at the time—supported Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard’s ‘Yes’ campaign to take Quebec out of Canada. After the narrow ‘No’ victory, Dumont reverted back to the idea of autonomism—essentially a radical (and, most observers say, unrealistic) decentralization of the Canadian federation.
Under an ADQ government, Dumont said, Quebec would remain in Canada only if the latter gave the former broad governance powers. He might have been against another referendum, but there certainly wasn’t a Canadian flag hanging anywhere in the Dumont household. He usually said the word ‘Canada’ as though the word itself was a canker sore, and he attracted hardened sovereigntists like polemicist Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, who was initially convinced of Dumont’s secret intent on leading Quebec out of Canada. (Beaulieu has since changed his tune.) “I’ve always sensed a certain discomfort towards Canada within the party,” says Charpentier. “I don’t know we need to be ashamed of the word.”
Dumont furthered the ambiguity by championing several nationalist causes—particularly the reasonable accommodations debate. During a by-election last year, ADQ campaign signs suggested immigrants were responsible for the erosion of French in Montreal, and called for a decrease in the province’s immigration rate. All this to try and gain a chunk of the péquiste vote, for whom ‘Canada’ is a dirty word. “When I heard about those signs I called the ADQ to cancel my membership,” says Vincent Geloso, a once-ardent supporter of the party. “I didn’t want the party to turn into a Quebec version of the old Reform party.”
Rather, Charpentier would like to see the ADQ modeled on Canada’s first ruling party, complete with its commitment to moderation, commonality amongst Canadians and the respect of provincial jurisdictions. “The Progressive-Conservative Party of Quebec, I like the sound of that,” Charpentier says, chuckling, after Maclean’s suggested the name. “I think we’ll stick with ‘ADQ’, but with a spirit of the Progressive-Conservative Party. I think it defines our thinking well.” It’s a fitting enough moniker, given that for all of Dumont’s bluster, the ADQ has essentially always been a federalist party. “Most adéquistes come from the [provincial] Liberals,” says Joanne Marcotte, a longtime ADQ supporter. “Out of every four votes, the ADQ will get three Liberals and maybe one péquiste.”
There is another challenge for the ADQ in the near future. The party long ago tied its wagon to the Conservative party (Charpentier himself is a diehard), and Stephen Harper relied heavily on the ADQ electoral machinery during the last federal election. If most recent polls are to believed, though, Harper’s party is in the midst of an ADQ-style déconfiture in Quebec. The most recent polls have Conservatives at 10-12 points below their pre-election numbers in October. Harper’s loss, it seems, is Michael Ignatieff’s gain; the Liberals have gained six points in Quebec over the same period. (Quebecers have had a soft spot Ignatieff ever since he mused on the necessity of enshrining the ‘Quebec Nation’ in the constitution, which ultimately led to Harper’s motion declaring “that Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.”)
Charpentier, who will run for the ADQ presidency before the end of the year, remains firmly on Harper’s side, and is known for his federalist leanings. “He’s very Canadian,” says Marcotte. He is also particularly bullish about getting Quebec’s signature on the Canadian Constitution. “We’re like a couple,” Charpentier says of Quebec and Canada. “All we are asking are for a few small things that don’t cost you a cent. We just want to know that you love us. Then we’ll sign the deal and move onto other things.” The relationship might not yet be perfect, but this much is clearer than ever: the ADQ will never be looking for a divorce.