A provincial election will be held in Québec on Oct. 3. The election campaign is an opportune moment to measure the political divisions brought about by the sovereignty question.
The campaign also provides an opportunity to see how Éric Duhaime’s Conservative Party of Québec (PCQ) is attempting to position itself on this issue.
Between 1976 and 2018, Québec elections were structured by the division between federalists and sovereignists. This division was reflected in the alternating in power of the Québec Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois. When the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) party took power in 2018, it muddied the waters of this persistent division.
What role will Québec’s Conservative Party play in this campaign? And where does it stand on the political spectrum of the right? As a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Québec in Montréal, my current research focuses on nationalism and populism in Canada, Québec and Germany.
Nationalism without a quest for statehood
If the national question no longer creates the same division and no longer puts the same two political parties in the forefront of Québec politics, the last four years have shown that it is too early to declare an end to nationalist dynamics in Québec politics.
Some, like Duhaime, believe that the divide between sovereignists and federalists has given way to one between the left and the right. My co-author and I do not share this view. There is not one nationalist movement in Québec, but rather several movements that do not all share the same objectives. They can sometimes be contradictory.
These dynamics will certainly shape this election campaign. With the decline of the sovereignist option, the type of nationalism oriented toward statehood that is historically associated with the Parti Québécois, as well as with Québec Solidaire, is on the decline among the electorate. Although many CAQ voters still identify themselves as sovereignists, they do not vote for a political party that openly promotes this type of nationalism.
The strength of the CAQ’s nationalist mobilization strategy is that it brings economic, republican, autonomous and populist nationalists together under one umbrella. The party is quite adept at seizing opportunities to win the loyalty of these different currents by playing on a number of legal and symbolic issues, but without arousing the fears often associated with the referendum option and the sovereignist horizon.
The CAQ has been willing to provoke conflict with the federal Liberal government. This strategy has been relatively successful so far, with the exception of François Legault’s support for the Conservative Party in the last federal election.
Beyond that, the CAQ tries to create situations where it can win in one of two ways. Either it gets what it wants, or it denounces the interference of the federal government or the rest of Canada in Québec politics. One example is the ongoing challenge to Bill 96 (French language law). Many Québec voters, even if they are opposed to Bill 21 (on state secularism) or 96, are equally opposed to the federal government interfering in legislation passed by Québec’s National Assembly.
If the Parti Québécois, Québec Solidaire and CAQ are sticking to familiar ground when it comes to the nationalist question, it remains to be seen where the PCQ and its new leader Duhaime will position themselves.
Where does the PCQ stand in Québec’s political landscape?
Duhaime’s party was galvanized by opposition to health measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its libertarian and convoluted position on the vaccination issue allowed the party to gain support via a protest vote. It has also built a loyal base that often flirts with conspiracy theories in a context of strong distrust toward the media in Québec. Early in the campaign, a Conservative candidate was once again forced to explain himself after associating the government’s treatment of non-vaccinated people with that of Jews “at one time”.
Some members of the Conservative team – up to 30 per cent of candidates according to a CBC survey – have spread misinformation about vaccines and other treatments related to COVID-19. Research shows a correlation between opposition to health measures, voting for populist right-wing parties and conspiracy thinking.
In a political climate in Québec where threats against politicians of all stripes have never been higher, many point out that Duhaime is playing a dangerous game by adopting the anti-establishment, friend-enemy rhetoric of radical right-wing insurrectionist movements, only to timidly call his activists to order later.
The party is placing all the cards in its very right-wing hand on economic issues, occupying a void left by the CAQ’s centre-right politics. In a context where young voters are dealing with inflation, the carrot of a tax cut – also proposed by its Liberal and CAQ competitors – could pay off. With this tax cut and its proposal to suspend the provincial gas tax, the PCQ is trying to position itself as the party of tax relief.
In terms of socio-demographics, the party has significant appeal among young voters, particularly young men. Some polls measured a disparity in voting intentions by gender with up to 8 percentage points more among men. This gap has narrowed recently. The PCQ now exceeds the Parti Québécois in voting intentions.
The PCQ’s strategy on the national question can be gleaned from two clear sources, the election platform and the program, and two grey sources, the leader’s public statements and the Québec Proud platform.
This platform includes the strategic and tactical repertoire that will be mobilized in the election campaign, what Duhaime calls priority issues. These include privatizing health care and the exploitation of hydrocarbons.
National populist and libertarian themes
The election platform presented on August 14 is silent on nationalist issues. It includes no reference to secularism, immigration or protection of the French language. This is not, however, the case with the party platform, nor with Duhaime’s public statements.
After advocating for a decrease in immigration, Duhaime is now sticking to the 50,000-immigrant threshold proposed by the CAQ. Speaking in French, he has repeatedly introduced the notion of “civilizational compatibility” as a principle that should structure immigration policy. In the vocabulary of the populist right, this notion of immigration is a dog whistle referring to the limitation of Muslim immigration. The program also aspires to a pro-natalist policy without detailing its content. The family, explains the electoral platform (in French), is “the primary institution of our society and the foundation of our nation.”
These themes align the party’s semantics and program with the national-populist right, but give it a clear federalist tone. By Duhaime’s own admission, this program shares many points in common with the nationalism of the CAQ. It could therefore appeal to a part of the electorate that supported Legault in 2018.
Beyond general statements, the concrete positioning of the PCQ on language issues is less clear. The PCQ seeks to present itself both as a defender of the French language, and as representing libertarian positions that oppose Québec’s language laws.
The program claims to want to protect French, “the most important vector of national identity and of the unique character of the Québec people in Canada and in America.” But while seeking to defend an identity centred around language, family and defending civilization, Duhaime is trying to appeal to an English-speaking electorate jaded by the Québec Liberal Party. On Tuesday, before an English-speaking audience in Montréal, he said he was opposed to using the notwithstanding clause to protect Bill 96.
These are difficult tensions to reconcile in Québec politics. It is hard to imagine how libertarians can commit to supporting Québec culture if they systematically oppose the institutional and cultural instruments that allow the state to subsidize, disseminate and promote that culture. So, even for federalists who support traditional Québec constitutional claims, Duhaime’s platform remains very vague.
This wide-ranging position could end up arousing the suspicion of both nationalists and federalists who are worried about the status of French in Québec and in the rest of Canada.
Embarrassing support from the Alberta oil and gas industry
Although ambiguities remain around identity issues, the PCQ is not hesitant when it comes to the question of exploiting of Québec’s energy resources, including natural gas. In this case, petro-populism complements nationalist populism.
Duhaime strongly supports the development of these resources, and his party has ties to pro-oil interest groups in Western Canada. The Facebook page Québec Proud, the French-language counterpart of Canada Proud, was recently described as a content factory for Duhaime’s formation. The page is a team effort between the oil and gas industry in the West and the PCQ, according to Radio-Canada. The group Québec Proud was recently funded by the Canada Strong and Free network. The Modern Miracle Network, an oil and gas advocacy organization, describes Québec Proud as a fossil industry advocacy group.
These endorsements could be dangerous for the PCQ. If the party appears to be a Québec branch of an Alberta-based party, it could drive away voters who had been attracted to the CAQ’s autonomist positions and economic nationalism.
In other words, it will be difficult to present the party as a ruler of its own economic policies if it is perceived as a lackey of Alberta interests.