A tale of two Quebecs: Montreal and the ROQ

The Liberals are running third outside of the Montreal area

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The Gazette, Sunday, September 14, 2008

There are two Quebecs in this election, Montreal and ROQ - the Rest of Quebec. And the ROQ, with 50 seats, is twice as important as Montreal.

There are also two Montreals, the island and the bedroom communities north and south of the city. And that's another story, an interesting sidebar, but not the main lead.

In larger terms, the Liberals are still the more competitive federalist party in the Montreal region, strongest in the anglophone and allophone bastions on the western half of the island, but overtaken by the Conservatives in most of the suburban seats in "the 450," the ring around the island. That's 25 seats, and the Liberals are counting, absolutely counting, on winning no fewer than 12 of them.

In the ROQ, the Liberals are simply out of the game almost everywhere else. In the crucial 418 area of Quebec City and eastern Quebec, the Conservatives now hold 10 seats and are competitive with the Bloc in the remainder. In the "rest of the rest of Quebec," it's a two-way race between the Bloc and the Conservatives, with the Bloc in decline and the Conservatives on the rise.

The math of it is simple and remorseless: The Liberals are on their way to finishing in third place in Quebec. Stated another way, the party of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau, and Chrétien, now led by another Quebecer named Dion, is facing an historic rejection by the province on which a great political franchise was built.

The decline of the Liberal brand in Quebec stands in contrast to its remarkable resilience in Ontario, the other keystone province in the great Liberal coalition of the 20th century.

Nor did this Liberal decline begin with Dion. He inherited a very bad situation, one of eroding brand equity over the last 25 years.

It begins with the unilateral patriation of the constitution by Pierre Trudeau in 1982, and was exacerbated by the role of the federal Liberals in the death of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990. Then the sponsorship program, an improvised response to the 1995 referendum, led the Liberals to disaster in the elections of 2004 and 2006. A party built in Quebec made a reputation first for turning its back on Quebec, and then for playing Quebecers for fools.

Dion played no role in any of this. In private life, he was a supporter of Meech Lake, and in public life has said that Trudeau's opposition to it was "the worst constitutional mistake" in Canadian history. His fingerprints aren't found anywhere on the sponsorship file. And far from being a practitioner of what the sovereignists call "domineering federalism," he has generally been very respectful of provincial jurisdictions. The Social Union Framework Agreement, negotiated on his watch as intergovernmental affairs minister in the late 1990s, is proof of it.

Yet he has an enduring image as the bad cop of federalism, largely because he was the sponsor of the Clarity Act, which established rules of the road for Quebec leaving Canada. As much as it might have been welcomed in the rest of Canada, it is hardly a great calling card in Quebec. Jean Lapierre, when he was Quebec lieutenant to Paul Martin, dismissed it as "useless." Informed of this in the 2004 campaign, Dion practically had steam coming out of his ears.

Through all of this, Dion has never been able to communicate a convincing or compelling personal narrative to his fellow Quebecers. He is a native son who lacks favourite-son status. Jean Chrétien wasn't exactly a favourite son, either, but through three elections he polarized the vote between the federalist and sovereignist camps around Liberal red and Bloc blue.

Then something else happened that wasn't Dion's fault. In the 2006 election, Stephen Harper gave both frustrated federalists and soft nationalists a respectable place to go, and his breakthrough smashed the symbiotic relationship between the Liberals and the Bloc.

This is now a big problem, not only for Dion but for Gilles Duceppe. Everywhere Harper goes in Quebec, he boasts of resolving the fiscal imbalance, whose existence Dion always denied even as Duceppe demanded it be addressed. Harper speaks of giving Quebec its place at UNESCO, and that its place is within the Canadian delegation is lost in the symbolism of it.

But it's the Québécois nation resolution that always jolts Harper's audience, as he always says, "recognizing that Quebecers form a nation within a united Canada." It's a huge winner.

It's also the symbolism of this, a turning of the page on Meech and other episodes of rejection that have so damaged the Liberal brand in Quebec over the last quarter century.

This isn't Dion's fault, either. He just happens to be wearing it.

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