How to fit in and stand out in Quebec -

How to fit in and stand out in Quebec

By criticizing cuts to culture and ‘centralization,’ Justin Trudeau is trying to win over Quebec. It’s a trickier proposition than it used to be.

 (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Listen to Paul Wells read his column, or subscribe to Maclean’s Voices on iTunes or Stitcher for on-the-go listening:

An eternal question political campaigns face is whether they can inflect the whims of fate in any way. It’s a question Justin Trudeau’s Liberals face right now in Quebec.

The Trudeau Liberals put out a French-language web ad in the first week of June. “I know the Conservatives’ cuts in culture worry people,” Trudeau says in voice-over, in French, as we see a shot of him standing onstage in a big empty concert hall. Salle Wilfrid Pelletier at Montreal’s Place des Arts, if I’m not mistaken.

Cut to Trudeau in interview footage. “Culture is part of our economy. It’s part of how we flourish.” Next shot: Trudeau shaking the hand of a smiling violinist and cellist in a dressing room. “Radio-Canada is essential. To see this institution threatened”—a dancer alone in a studio, looking vaguely worried—“it’s like seeing a threat to our identity.” Big crowd outdoors at Montreal’s jazz festival. “For me, culture, it goes to the heart of who we are,” Trudeau says. “You need a team with new ideas. That’s the Canada we want to build. I’m Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.”

Justin Trudeau, friend of artists. From the herky-jerky syntax of the script, and by the way the audio cuts in and out, it’s pretty clear the voice track is spliced together from separate clips. The impression is confirmed by an earlier French-language ad, released a month ago, that took a different route to the same closing sentences. Indeed, to the same sound clip. “We have to create an economy that works for the middle class. That’s the Canada we want to build. I’m Justin Trudeau . . . ”

Justin Trudeau, friend of the economy. And splicing. Above all, friend of Quebec. The messages chosen for these ads, especially the cellist-and-dancer video, are designed to appeal to Quebecers, who dealt the Conservatives a fierce backlash in 2008 after Stephen Harper’s staff made light of some pre-election cuts to Canadian Heritage programs for touring artists. The bit about Radio-Canada makes sense if you recall that thousands of people marched last November across Quebec to protest against Radio-Canada cuts.

The only geographical entity Trudeau mentions in either ad is Canada, but his pitch, and his preoccupation, are more tightly focused. The website ThreeHundredEight keeps a monthly average of publicly available election polls. The Liberals bounced up and down around 32 per cent in Quebec for more than a year, good enough to keep them in first place for most of that time. But an eight-month slide left them at 25 per cent in May. Equally preoccupying is the decline among francophone voters, who determine the winner in most Quebec ridings outside parts of Montreal. From February to April, the pollster CROP found the Liberals losing eight points among francophone Quebec respondents.

Suddenly, new ads showing Trudeau worried about Radio-Canada and, apparently, the jazz festival. And a 40-minute interview for La Presse, in which he proclaimed that Tom Mulcair’s NDP—certainly the main obstacle standing between Trudeau and a Quebec comeback—is a “centralizing” party that doesn’t understand Quebec’s needs.

By now the word “centralizing” has had nearly all its meaning leeched away by generations of abuse at the hands of partisans of every stripe, but its appearance in Trudeau’s lexicon is intriguing. Several Liberal leaders—Louis St. Laurent, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien—used to stand proudly as the sorts of fellows who could defend the responsibilities and prerogatives of a strong central government. Probably some Liberals thought they were getting something similar when they chose Trudeau as their leader.

But this year just about every party running candidates in Quebec is against an Ottawa-knows-best federal government. Stephen Harper, whose seminal 2001 “firewall letter” was a manifesto against federal encroachment into provinces’ business, has now been Prime Minister for more than half of the longest-ever period of uninterrupted growth in federal transfers to the provinces. Mulcair complains Harper isn’t growing those transfers fast enough. And Trudeau says even Mulcair wants to leave too much clout at the federal level. One wonders why Gilles Duceppe wants back into federal politics, since his colleagues from other parties are competing so energetically to ensure nothing ever happens in Ottawa.

Any party has to believe it can battle out of a slump anywhere in the country. Trudeau must hope he is due for a change of momentum in Quebec. At 25 per cent of the popular vote in the province, he’d be way ahead of Michael Ignatieff’s 2011 score, but barely a point higher than the result Stéphane Dion obtained in Quebec in 2008. There is no path to power for the Liberals that has Trudeau doing only as well as Stéphane Dion in Quebec.

A rule of political thumb used to hold that parties with francophone Quebec leaders did well at home in federal elections. That rule didn’t work for Paul Martin in 2006, or even for Gilles Duceppe in 2011, thrown over for a party led by a Montreal-born anglo, Jack Layton, who’d made his career in the mouth of the Great Satan—or Toronto city council, as it’s also known. Native-son advantage ain’t what it used to be in Quebec. Trudeau’s problem isn’t that he carries the burden of his controversial father. He could probably use a little controversy at this point. Anything to stand out from all the other decentralists who worry about Radio-Canada.


How to fit in and stand out in Quebec

  1. Hmmmm. I don’t like this.

  2. I think there is historical evidence to show that there is a flock of Quebec voters who, by whatever genius, seem to know when and where to move – Mulroney to Bloc, Bloc to NDP, Liberal to Parti Quebecois. The interesting thing now is to psych out what the October move will be if any,although I can’t believe they will all stay with NDP. And I don’t think for a minute that Trudeau II has his finger on the pulse. Quebecois are interested in the arts but they are more interested in food on the table, money for rent and clothes.

  3. Shows how far Harper has moved the goal posts. Nobody dares be seen as a centralist these days. It’s a massive accomplishment when you think of it. He set out to limit the scope of the federal government permanently – and if you listen to the assurances from the Opposition parties, he’s succeeded probably beyond his own expectations. Decentralization is now the status quo, the only debate being how to go about it and who is better at it.

    Also note that Trudeau has abandoned any pretense of creating a national daycare plan, instead coming up with a competing (and quite sound from a policy perspective) cash transfer to parents. That’s another thing you’d never have seen Martin/Chretien promise. I give Trudeau credit for finally tossing that old fossil out of the goody bag for good. National child care in one form or another has been promised since his father’s day. If the impetus was there, along with the will to pay for it, we’d have had it long ago.

    • “Shows how far Harper has moved the goal posts. Nobody dares be seen as a centralist these days.” Maybe. But then, this is Quebec, where Harper and Harperism has had little sway.

      I think it’s more of general trend that began with the Chretien years. The decline of centralization is part and parcel of decline of Quebec separatism. Note that over the last twenty years, their respective political vehicle (the Liberal Party of Canada and the Parti Quebecois) have turned into parties of losers so slowly nobody noticed. Franco-Quebeckers have been reconciled with being Canadians, so long as it demands little from them.

      Having a weak central government is the price Canada pays to keep Quebec within it. The problem, I think, is that many Anglo-Canadians don’t or don’t want to understand this basic fact of Canadian political life. They want a federal government that really does Stand Up for Canada. How a post-Conservative federal government handles this problem will play a big part in determining how well it fares.

  4. While the MSM has written Trudeau off in a bunch of obituary columns the last number of weeks, saying, the liberals plunging, and stand no chance of getting back in the game, but they(MSM)still cant get enough of writing about Trudeau, it’s actually becoming beyond border line creepy. There is not a liberal friendly news organization in the country. CTV and CBC go after Trudeau for the slightest remark and preaches the same message all the rest of the other news organization continue to parrot, Mulcair and Harper are the only 2 contenders in this match, well I say, start doing your work MSM, start looking under their(H&M) rocks, and let Trudeau die in the political world, if you feel he is Toast. They(MSM)attacked Trudeau when he speaks on script, they attack him for talking off script, it’s a continuous cycle of a no win situation for Trudeau, no matter what he does or says. The last time this MSM let a Leader cruise through an election was in 2011 without any scrutiny, Canada wake up to the next day after the election, with an opposition leader who was a dead man walking, because the MSM fell asleep while not doing the job, they were supposed to be doing, is asking tough questions. Mulcair and Harper are the so called front men, If you believe in poling, then why aren’t the MSM dissecting them the way they are dissecting Mr. Trudeau. It’s a MSM bro-crush on Trudeau, it’s an obsession starting to border beyond Harpers Bro-crush.

  5. Precisely Komarade Wells this is why you have to take over from Butts his consoling of the you friend the Dauphin is dragging the Libranos into the basement……..

    • Care to make a coherent post? Can you even if you want to?

  6. Interesting column, but it was puzzling to read that leaders from Quebec do well in Quebec. Surely Mr. Wells remembers Jean Chretien’s accession to the Liberal leadership in 1990, which was greeted in Quebec in the way the world might welcome Donald Trump becoming president. The self styled p’tit gars de Shawinigan was viewed as a blustering bully, and too willing to put on the friendly frog act to amuse English Canadians. The Bloc Québécois promptly rose to being the main political force in Quebec, and Chretien won fewer than 20 seats in the province in 1993, despite a near-clean sweep of Ontario and the Maritimes. Most of the Quebec seats were in areas with substantial numbers of non francophone voters, and Mr. Chretien, to his credit, was smart enough not to put himself front and centre in the Quebec campaign. Still, he evoked the sort of disgust that Brian Mulroney’s name aroused in English Canada during the same years. It was unusual to meet a francophone in Quebec (I do not mean hard core PQ partisans, but middle of the road types) who did not speak badly and bitterly about Chretien. One of the kinder jibes was, “Our parting gift to English Canada.” More typical: “He’s so stupid the English have no choice but to vote for him.” Not exactly support for a native son.