‘Battle for Quebec’ to be decided today amid climate of renewed nationalism

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MONTREAL — After weeks of wooing Quebec voters, Canada’s would-be prime ministers can only wait for the ballots to be counted in a seat-rich province that could determine the outcome of today’s federal election.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals sailed to their best showing in the province in decades as they won 40 of the province’s 78 ridings.

But the latest polls in the province show the Liberals fighting to maintain a narrow lead against a resurgent Bloc Quebecois, who have rebounded from an internal crisis last year to bound their way up the polls based on appeals to Quebec nationalism and the solid leadership of Yves-Francois Blanchet.

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All major federal party leaders have campaigned heavily in Quebec, whose high seat count and fickle electorate — who have tend to vote as a bloc — have made the province a potential kingmaker.

The Liberals have lobbied for a second mandate for Trudeau, who has argued Quebecers will be best-served being included at the decision-making table in a government that shares its progressive values.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, on the other hand, is hoping his strong roster of local candidates and promise to lower living costs will help expand his party’s seat count beyond the Quebec City area where he held 11 seats, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has promised the province new powers and funding in a bid to revive the so-called orange wave of support that carried his party to official Opposition status eight years ago.

But growing support for the Bloc Quebecois has threatened to derail the Liberal and Conservative chances of forming a majority, and could quash the hopes of New Democrats, who are in danger of losing most of the 14 seats they held at dissolution.

All leaders have faced tough questions while campaigning in the current climate of Quebec nationalism embodied by Premier Francois Legault, who has not shied away from demanding more control over immigration, compensation for expenses related to asylum-seekers, and a promise to stay out of any legal challenge of the province’s controversial but popular secularism law.

Trudeau is the only leader who has left the door open to eventually challenging Bill 21, which opened him to attacks from Blanchet during the televised French-language debates, while his choice to purchase a pipeline has also drawn criticism from environmentalists.

Singh, who wears a turban as a symbol of his Sikh faith, has been asked why he lacks the courage to challenge a law that prevents those who wear religious symbols to hold many government jobs, while Scheer has faced accusations that his personal pro-life stance and desire create a cross-country energy corridor puts him out of steps with the province’s values.

While all three leaders have made promises aimed specifically at pleasing the province, they’ve also had to focus on national unity and avoid alienating voters in other regions.

Blanchet, who runs candidates only in Quebec, has no such balance to strike.

The Bloc Quebecois leader insists he’s the only one who will meet all Legault’s demands, and put Quebec’s interests first at the expense of other provinces.

To fend him off, his rivals spent the last few days of campaigning raising the spectre of separatism, suggesting Blanchet’s goal is to divide the country and “revive old debates that we moved past,” as Trudeau put it Sunday.

Blanchet, a former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister, insists sovereignty is far down his list of priorities — at least for now. 

“One day we’ll have conversation about sovereignty, but it’s not tomorrow,” he said Sunday.

“It’s not the mandate Quebecers who decided, who asked us to carry the voice of Quebec’s (provincial legislature), and that’s what we’ll do.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 21, 2019

The Canadian Press

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