The Quebec Election and Canada’s New Political Unpredictability

There is growing backlash against the established political order, and no party or politician is safe

Francois Legault
Photograph by Ryan Remiorz

For the first time in nearly fifty years, Quebec will have a premier who belongs to neither the Liberal Party nor the Parti Québécois. François Legault, leader of the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec, romped to victory on Monday on the back of a campaign that promised to cut immigration, downsize government, and, perhaps most crucially for him, put aside the question of an independent Quebec.

In Legault’s wake was Philippe Couillard, leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec, who saw his party reduced to just a quarter of the vote, with 32 seats. In even more dire straits was Jean-François Lisée and the Parti Québécois, which secured just nine. Both parties have not posted such poor showings in decades.

The unlikely dark horse that also found itself celebrating was Québec solidaire—the self-described environmentalist, leftist, feminist, sovereigntist party. They jumped from three lone seats on the island of Montreal to ten seats spread across the province. QS came out ahead of the PQ, the party that has defined the past generation of Quebec politics. They even knocked Lisée out in his own Montreal riding.

Quebec is a unique political climate. Some elections are fought and won, or lost, on issues that seem entirely foreign to the rest of the country—forbidding religious symbols in some spaces, stiffening the province’s byzantine language laws, and, of course, sovereignty. This election, in some respects, was no different. There was a back and forth on education, language, health care. But there was also bigger trend at play; one that can be observed worldwide, not just in Quebec. The old-school parties are finding their hold on the electorate weakening. Electorates are discovering that things aren’t so scary outside the confines of their old two-or-three-party system.

The PQ may never recover from Monday’s defeat—they could find themselves cannibalized in some way by their left-wing challengers. The Liberals, meanwhile, aren’t doing too hot either. The demographics of the vote suggest Couillard’s party was relegated largely to anglophone, immigrant, and minority voters. His second-place finish may mask what appears to be a deeper problem for his party: that the white, francophone voters in the province have found an alternative.

One way or another, while Legault may have a wide majority to work with, Quebec is politically fractured. Narratives around the election are likely to ignore that reality, however, and default to two worn maxims: sovereignty is dead, or at least on life support, and Quebec has just vaulted a xenophobe to the premier’s office. Be wary of those narratives. There’s a more fitting lesson to take from Monday night: nothing is forever in politics, and nobody is irreplaceable.

When this election began, in the dead of summer, incumbent Philippe Couillard faced the dual problems of voter fatigue with Liberal rule—the party has been in power for thirteen of the last fifteen years—and frustration with years of fiscal austerity. Couillard’s tenure has seen the province’s economy boom. Unemployment is at its lowest point in a decade and sits below the Canadian average. Its GDP is growing even as it forgoes new oil-exploration opportunities. (RBC calls it “an economy on a roll.”) Quebec, once a model of fiscal imprudence, is posting budget surpluses. It even feels like Montreal is making progress in its never-ending construction season. That swagger led the province’s largest city to oust its incumbent liberal mayor and install a lefty urbanist: Valérie Plante. That election marked the first time the eco-friendly Projet Montréal elected to lead city council.

But the backdrop of those economic success has been a dirty word in Quebec: austérité. Many voters never quite got over Couillard’s across-the-board haircuts—especially when it meant less money to, for one thing, pay teachers. But it was even less palpable as Couillard turned around and lavished expensive election promises onto an unamused electorate, pledging free transit for students and seniors.

Since 1970, the main foil to the Liberals has been the Parti Québécois. Frustration with the Liberals tends to galvanize the sovereigntist forces. This time was different. While the Liberals’ popularity sank, support for sovereignty also collapsed—according to one recent Ipsos poll, less than a third of Quebecers say they’re in favour of an independence. And so voter frustration embraced an unlikely alternative: François Legault and the CAQ, a party of small-government deficit hawks. In his first run for office, Legault was an anticorruption crusader. In 2014, he ran on a platform of regional development. He came in third both times.

Ever the political chameleon, Legault pivoted again. He launched his campaign this year promising to reduce immigration levels and swearing that he’d subject new arrivals to Quebec to a test of French and Quebec values within their first three years. Fail, and you’re gone from the province. (Or, at least, that’s the idea. How he’ll do it is still an open question.)

By focusing on immigration, Legault drew Couillard into a one-on-one fight, and the issue quickly became the clearest point of difference between the two leaders—a sparring match that seemed to push Lisée to the sidelines. The PQ leader’s efforts in the debates ranged from uninspiring to outright confusing. He told voters from the outset that he would not hold a referendum in his first hypothetical mandate, raising the question as to why he was running at all. The PQ campaign slogan seemed to underscore the existential crisis: It was, simply, “Sérieusement.” The question mark was practically implied. Seriously?

And yet it was shocking how quickly one of the pillars of the Quebec political scene was reduced to third, then fourth, place. Given the PQ’s humiliating slid from heir apparent to parliamentary rump, it’s easy to conclude that Quebec’s independence project has never seemed less likely. And yet that’s not quite right. While the PQ has long been synonymous with Quebec’s independence movement, it has only ever been a vehicle. And it is one saddled with an increasingly damaged brand. Polling conducted in the leadup to the vote showed the party to be the least popular of the four major parties amongst eighteen- to thirty-four-year-old voters.

The PQ’s quick drive to the outskirts of political relevance holds uncomfortable lessons for parties in the rest of Canada. The PQ has more political history than the Conservative Party of Canada. It has a more dedicated and partisan base than the Liberal Party of Canada. It was the vanguard for the Quebec sovereigntist movement—and now it’s in fourth place. If any campaign operative decides to conclude that the trend reflected in the PQ’s downfall isn’t applicable to the Canadian scene writ large, they do so at their own peril.

The PQ didn’t just collapse in a vacuum. Québec solidaire filled that void. The party is just over a decade old, having been formed by the fusion of various feminist, communist, and antiglobalist parties—including the NDP’s Quebec wing—and has been making steady gains in every election since. QS is still dedicated to Quebec’s independence but proposes a considerably different path to achieving it. A QS government would strike a constituent assembly with representation from across the province. Anglophones, francophones, immigrants, long-time Quebecers, Indigenous peoples—everyone would be invited. The document cobbled together from these assemblies would be a draft version of a constitution. Voters would be asked to approve, or reject, that constitution as the ballot-box question in a QS-led independence referendum.

It’s certainly a novel approach, given past fights over Quebec’s past referendum questions. The novelty doesn’t end there. Québec solidaire doesn’t have a leader: It has two co-spokespeople. Manon Massé, one of the spokespeople, became an unlikely political superstar during the election. She is a former feminist, queer, and antipoverty activist. Her co-spokesperson, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, is a household name in the province, having been the de facto leader of the general student strike that is credited, in part, with bringing down ex-premier Jean Charest and defeating a set of proposed tuition hikes.

But as QS seems poised carry on the cause for the next generation of Quebec’s independence movement, the question as to how Legault will wear his role as federalist-in-chief remains an interesting one. Legault had, more than a decade ago, served as a minister in successive PQ governments. When he quit the party and launched his own, he initially remained vague on which side of the line he stood. This time around, he made it perfectly clear: a CAQ government would never hold a referendum on Quebec’s separation from Canada.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Legault will be entirely friendly toward the rest of Canada. He has promised to demand more powers for Quebec’s legislature, powers which will have to be handed over from Ottawa. And he’s spoiling for a fight when it comes to religious accommodation. He wants to ban civil servants from wearing religious symbols, such as the hijab, and will use the notwithstanding clause to stop Canadian courts from striking it down. (It could still may yet run afoul of Quebec’s own charter of rights.)

In general, though, Legault has little in common with other Canadian populists, like Maxime Bernier and Doug Ford. Legault says he’s committed to Quebec’s ambitious CO2-reduction targets and has not suggested he’ll scrap the province’s cap-and-trade carbon-pricing system. He’s also promised billions in new infrastructure spending for public transit around Montreal, he’s promised to expand and improve government-run seniors homes, and he’s promised to extend government schooling to four-year-olds.

One issue where the Quebec election mirrored the national mood is immigration. Most of the border crossers who have trekked from the American side of the border into Canada this year have crossed through the province. Meanwhile, there is a public concern that the francization of new immigrants is failing. And yet, while Legault used the issue to set himself apart from Couillard, the pollster Leger found that immigration ended up being the driving concern for only about one in ten voters.

From the outset, Legault promised a 20 percent reduction in immigration into Quebec. Annually, Quebec welcomes north of 50,000 newcomers. Of that, 30,000 are economic immigrants who come through Quebec’s skilled-workers program, while another 20,000 enter the province through the federal immigration system—refugees and those reuniting with their families.

Legault wants just 40,000 immigrants, and he wants to subject everyone—except refugees—to a test of French and a test of Quebec values. The values test would focus on knowledge of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (its answer to the Canadian Charter), but the test also serves as a dog whistle—an attempt to point the finger at immigrants from Muslim-majority countries for their purported incompatibility with the West. If anyone were to fail the test, they would have their immigration status revoked. Just how Legault intends to kick immigrants out of the province because they flunked a written exam—potentially three years after arriving, when they may have already started a family—is what many wanted to know, especially given that Quebec has no authority to deport people. And when you factor in that those would-be citizens already have their permanent-resident status in Canada, it seems unlikely Ottawa would approve their expulsion, meaning that Legault may be able to kick them out of Quebec but not Canada. Legault seemed to fail to grasp these basic ideas.

His stance didn’t play well at all. Business groups are already concerned about Quebec’s skills shortage and want additional immigrants to fill the gap. What’s more, despite Quebec’s concern with ensuring immigrants acclimatize to the province’s unique political and cultural scene, it’s hard to see any appetite for mass deportations. It had all the tenor of bad populist karaoke, with tunes borrowed from France’s Rassemblement national (as Marine Le Pen’s Front National is now known), the UK Independence Party, and Maxime Bernier’s own upstart venture, the People’s Party. Legault is obviously sensitive to those associations—when Le Pen congratulated the CAQ, Legault repudiated her olive branch, tweeting that “Quebecers are welcoming and generous.”

Voters seemed turned off. The consensus seemed to be that Legault was set to squander an easy victory by going too hard on immigration. When the PQ tried to outflank the CAQ, suggesting it could cut immigration even more severely, the separatist party’s slide in the polls only increased.

The other two parties, meanwhile, condemned Legault’s rhetoric. Couillard even used a moment during one of the English-language debates to issue a warning: “the way we talk about immigration and immigrants is not always positive.…It’s not helping. They have, also, to feel welcome. Including by the political leaders of the country or the province.” QS, which supports maintaining immigration levels and boosting support for newcomers, virtually refused to discuss the issue, with co-spokesperson Nadeau-Dubois fearing debating the levels could unfairly demonize newcomers. “We will never do politics on the backs of immigrants and minorities,” he said early in the campaign.

It all seemed to show that while voters were comfortable with reducing immigration, they had their limits. (Quebecers tend to think immigration levels, in general, are too high—but so does half of the rest of the country, according to a recent Angus Reid poll.)

Legault, by midcampaign, was apparently looking to course correct. In a televised debate, he offered a mea culpa. “I’m not perfect. It happens that I make mistakes,” he said in French. A line from Legault soon took on a life as an unofficial slogan for the party: “En prendre moins mais en prendre soin.” Roughly translated, it’s: “we’ll take fewer, but we’ll care for them better.”

Legault iterated that, by reducing the number of newcomers who enter through Quebec only to head to other provinces, his plan would actually see more immigrants in Quebec. And fewer immigrants going through the system would mean better integration, he promised. It was an ugly message covered in proimmigrant bubble wrap. But it seemed to work. Legault took a more cautious tone around immigration and apologized for his harsh language, and his numbers turned around just in time for election day.

Legault’s huge victory and Québec solidaire’s strong showing are a pretty clear sign that there is growing backlash against the established political order and that no party or politician is safe. Unpleasant outcomes are bound to spring from this changed reality—Legault vowed, a day after his victory, that he would follow through on his harsh policies for religious minorities and newcomers, even if it meant using the notwithstanding clause. True, Monday’s results had plenty to do with Couillard’s unpopular cost cutting, Lisée’s misfired campaign, Legault’s quasi-populist immigration plan, and Massé’s indelible charm. But those results were also precipitated by a switch being flicked somewhere: one that told voters that they are no longer constrained to the two-party system that had dominated Quebec for so long.

And it’s not just Quebec. New Brunswick just saw a general election where a nearly a quarter of voters opted for the upstart Greens and the right-wing People’s Alliance, frustrating efforts by either establishment Liberals or Tories to form a majority government. In Vancouver, the trio of municipal political parties that have dominated the city’s political scene for two decades has started to fall apart, and now there’s no telling how many parties and independents could end up on city council. Federally, Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada seems set to be doing well enough that he’ll at least have a caucus to speak of.

All in, we’re getting increasing evidence from across the country that there’s not just room for alternatives but that people are actively searching them out. Quebec, which just brought to power a party of corporate-friendly, immigration-skeptic nationalists and boosted a team of radical sovereigntists, may be an extreme example. But, as with thin bagels and giant scarves, once it becomes du jour in Quebec, expect to see the trend take hold everywhere else soon after.

Justin Ling
Justin Ling is an investigative journalist and host of the podcast Uncover: The Village.