As the country settles into its second year of the pandemic and party leaders ruminate on the December brush with elections when Liberals survived a confidence vote, their parties are already vying for the elusive Quebec vote.
Determined not to be as blindsided by the francophone factor as they were in 2019, behind the scenes party strategists look to one of the most significant and under-represented age groups in Quebec: young francophone voters.
In 2019, 18-to 34-year-olds made up more than 23 per cent of the province’s voting population but represented the lowest turnout rate of any age group, with only about 56 per cent of them casting a vote. Francophones made up three quarters of that age group during the most recent census.
Despite an aging Canadian population, young voters retain the ability to significantly upset electoral expectations, according to Ipsos Canada vice-president Sébastien Dallaire.
“It changes the dynamic of an election when you have younger people being more active,” he said. “Because you do add a little block of voters that are maybe not that numerous, but they can make a big difference.”
Federal parties experienced that unpredictability first-hand when the Bloc Québécois surged back to official party status in 2019 after an almost decade-long slump.
“We didn’t see this return coming,” recalls Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP’s lieutenant in Quebec. “There were people in the last few years who would ask us ‘Oh, the BQ still exists?’”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still carried the election in the end, although the results had delivered a very clear message: it is hard to predict which way Quebecers will vote in federal elections.
This wasn’t the first time federal parties had been surprised by francophone voters in the belle province, and Trudeau had benefited in the past. Dallaire explained in an interview how the NDP’s “orange wave” that swept through Quebec in 2011 turned out to be somewhat short-lived.
“Who voted for the NDP back then, when you broke it down by left and right, was pretty much even,” he said. “Maybe a little bit more to the left, but a lot of people who said they were right-wingers voted for the NDP.”
After the NDP publicly supported allowing women to wear niqabs during official ceremonies, however, many of their supporters turned to the Liberals in 2015 despite Trudeau adopting a similar stance on the issue.
“Because it was expected, voters were not angry at them,” Dallaire added. “But they were angry at the NDP.”
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Voter intentions shifted again in 2019 when polarization seemed to drive voters away from the NDP and Conservatives. Some of this change, Boulerice argued, was simply due to the Canadian system forcing voters into restrictive choices.
“Sometimes it encourages people to vote not for the person they want to see in Parliament, but against the person they want to block from winning.”
The NDP’s support was strained at the time, and Boulerice thinks Quebecers might have thought voting for Jagmeet Singh would only split the progressive vote and make it easier for Conservatives to win. When the ballots were counted, Boulerice was the only NDP candidate who was kept on in Quebec.
On the Conservative side, Andrew Scheer faced much more direct and tougher opposition. Coalition Avenir Québec, the province’s ruling party, was already very popular among Quebecers and the Bloc aligned themselves completely with Premier François Legault’s provincial platform. Marc-André Leclerc, Scheer’s former chief of staff, said that this made the campaign hard for the Conservatives.
“As soon as you get into these stakes that are very much about Quebec, it becomes very difficult for the Conservative Party to compete against the BQ because, at the end of the day, you can’t be more nationalist than them,” he said.
As Leclerc points out, much of the support that the Bloc and the Conservatives struggled over was among the older population for whom issues of culture and language are still paramount.
This is not likely to remain the case as Quebecers go through a second year of pandemic and restrictions, however. Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, says that there is a good chance the political focus will turn to more concrete financial issues.
“This is a post-pandemic world,” he pointed out. “Last year, we could spend time debating Bill 21 (Quebec’s religious neutrality law). If we are still struggling with COVID-19 in 2021 it should be the most central issue in Quebec.”
Béland is not alone in this belief, as current and former members of federal parties also expect the focus of the next election to turn away from cultural issues in Quebec.
“In the next election, no matter at what level, it won’t be time to dream in technicolour,” said Leclerc.
“And people will vote for the party that can convince them it can wind back the tape to February 2020, with some improvements.”
Boulerice predicts that this shift in focus might undercut the consolidated support the Bloc has enjoyed in the past year and a half since voters will be looking for a party who can win and take action on the things they need.
“The pandemic really showed the cracks in our current system,” he said. “Whether it’s health care privatization, working conditions for nurses or the state’s general capacity for providing services.”
It is one thing for a young Quebecer to support a party and another thing entirely to vote, however. Indeed, federal parties have struggled to motivate young voters to cast ballots. According to Statistics Canada, people aged 18-24 are the second-most likely group to abstain from voting due to reasons related to the electoral process.
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This is especially the case among young francophones who feel ambivalent towards federal politics. They aren’t as preoccupied with the historical debates surrounding sovereignty and language, Dallaire explains, but the vast majority still identifies more as Quebecer than Canadian.
Gabriel Masi, co-president for the Quebec’s Young New Democrats, says that he’s been able to see this in action when campaigning.
“I’ve yet to encounter a member of the francophone youth that specifically said they weren’t supporting the NDP because of religious symbols whereas I’ve heard that a lot from the older generation,” he explained.
Even if they aren’t aligned with the same political objectives of older age groups, however, Masi says it can be risky to go too far against Quebec policy when trying to win support from young francophones.
“There is also, I think, a segment of young voters that thinks a lot of the Quebec affairs should be left alone,” he said. “And that the federal parties should not get involved.”
Since the 2019 federal election, the situation in Quebec does not seem to have changed much. According to the most recent polling figures from Ipsos, the Liberal Party leads with 32 per cent, a 5-point edge over the Bloc, while the Conservatives and the NDP are at 16 and 13 per cent, respectively.
Despite their lead, however, Liberals are unlikely to rest on their laurels, says former Liberal strategist Greg MacEachern, who has worked with multiple minority governments.
“Although some people romanticize minorities, I am not one of them,” he said. “And I would suspect at this point, the Prime Minister definitely sees the advantage of having a majority government.”
As vaccine rollouts progress and new issues come up, voter priorities are likely to shift even further. Looking ahead to a potential election in 2021, political leaders will have to get to work early and think practically on the campaign trail if they want to win the roughly 650,000 votes young Quebecers left on the table at the end of last elections.
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