Election 2007 Changes Quebec's Political Landscape

After it's over, you almost always realize you could have seen historic change coming if you had only known where to look.

On Monday night, Mario Dumont and his ACTION DÉMOCRATIQUE DU QUÉBEC party became the blunt instruments of a chastening electoral blow delivered by Quebecers to their entrenched political elites. From four seats in 2003, Dumont's party - heretofore more a conservative nationalist cult of personality erected like so much rickety scaffolding around its young leader - rocketed to 41 seats and 31 per cent of the popular vote, ahead of the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS and only seven seats behind Jean CHAREST's incumbent Liberals.

This was history with the gloves off. The PQ was reduced to its lowest share of the popular vote since 1970, the Liberals to their lowest since 1976. Quebecers had their first minority provincial government since the 19th century. In only two months, Dumont and his party, long treated as a bunch of xenophobic bumpkins who needed to be kept away from the good china, had doubled their share of popular support and positioned themselves as the most important new force in Quebec politics.

Charest, who struggled all night before finally coming out on top in his own Sherbrooke riding, was rocked back on his heels. "A severe judgment," he acknowledged in a bittersweet election-night speech. But the damage to the PQ and the broader Quebec secessionist movement was even more devastating. The PQ has seemed dead before, and always manages to get up off its deathbed. But the humiliation of André Boisclair, in whom so many Péquistes had put so much hope for a long overdue generational change in leadership, was a shattering blow. "Quebec voters are in the process of breaking loose of the democratic prison inside which they've been locked up for 30 years," said Michel Fréchette, a political analyst in Montreal.

As the dust began to settle, the benefits of hindsight kicked in, as always too late to help win the office pool. Guessing what will happen next is more challenging than ever.

Suddenly, long-buried clues take on new significance. Would Quebecers' ingrained social-democrat instincts forever protect left-leaning parties against what Lucien Bouchard called "the cold wind" of conservatism from the rest of Canada? Maybe not. A decade ago, pollsters working for Paul MARTIN's federal Finance Department were finding that Quebecers were likelier than any other Canadians to believe they paid too much tax. In June 2002, Joseph Facal, a bright young Parti Québécois cabinet minister, risked losing his job by saying his party might provoke a middle-class backlash because it couldn't get over its infatuation with an ever-more-cumbersome welfare state. "Forty-four per cent of Quebecers don't pay tax," Facal said. "Imagine the pressure on the rest."

Could two establishment favourites forever keep a determined challenger out of the winners' circle? Not necessarily. Last December, two unlikely giant-killers, Stéphane DION in the federal Liberals and Ed STELMACH in the Alberta Conservatives, stole their parties' leadership from under the noses of better-funded and more prominent front-runners. Stelmach's victory also had elements of the country-mouse rebellion against a provincial metropolis - Calgary in Stelmach's case, Montreal in Dumont's - that would be so important to Dumont's breakthrough.

Finally, Stephen HARPER saw how rapidly the political ground was shifting in Quebec and adjusted accordingly. In the 2006 election, three of Stephen Harper's bumper crop of 10 Quebec Conservative MPs turned out to have roots in Dumont's party, not in the provincial Liberals. Still, Harper worked more closely with Charest than any prime minister has with any Quebec premier at least since Lester PEARSON and Jean LESAGE in the 1960s. As Dumont began to rise in the polls, however, Harper took pains to emphasize that the Quebec Liberals were not his only allies. "I lead a party that is a coalition at the provincial level," Harper told the magazine Policy Options in January. "There is another opposition party, another party leader, Mario Dumont, who doesn't want a referendum."

So the omens and portents were many. But what was left when the dust settled was something fresh and new. If it has a face, it is Mario Dumont's.

On Monday, at the ADQ party headquarters in Rivière-du-Loup, the Lower Gaspé riding Dumont has represented in the National Assembly since 1994, there was little room for fancy theories about renewed federalism and the end to the always-looming separatist threat. This was Mario's show. The resolutely nationalist boy from the village of Cacouna filled his victory speech with the kind of colourful boilerplate that might have been borrowed from René Lévesque. "Today, Quebecers went to the polls to write a page of history," he thundered from the podium. "They opened a new chapter written with the ink of their own destiny."

After those gusts of rhetoric, parts of Dumont's speech sounded like the fine print on a bill of sale. "I'm also pleased to see the enthusiasm for the ADQ's vision of autonomy for Quebecers, to affirm ourselves without separating, and to unite instead of dividing." This was not really new - Dumont worked throughout the campaign to position himself between Boisclair's hardline sovereignty and Charest's perceived chumminess with Ottawa - but neither did it answer many questions. Perhaps the biggest: how much co-operation will there be between Canada's Conservative government and Quebec's right-of-centre opposition?

"Officially, not much," said a beaming Pierre Beaulieu, a local ADQ organizer. "Unofficially, there's a lot. There are a lot of old-stock Quebec Conservatives around here. And Mario is a small-c conservative at heart."

Already, ADQ insiders say Michel Lagacé, a member of Rivière-du-Loup's regional council, will run for the federal Conservatives in the next election, and will use the ADQ's suddenly formidable election machinery to do so. "And if he runs, he will win," Beaulieu said. "It's a great day for Quebec, and a great day for Canada." (The same sentiment was voiced, in almost the same words, by Stephen Harper the next morning in Ottawa.)

Meanwhile Dumont, who has increased his share of the popular vote in every one of the four elections he has contested, is a step closer to becoming Quebec premier - a dream inscribed in his yearbook caption way back some 20 years ago. Born into a Liberal family in Cacouna, Dumont was a precocious, devoted student who read the dictionary in his downtime and whose circle of friends consisted of his three teammates on the school's quiz-show team, including François Lizotte, the candidate in Hull who came in third on Monday.

Génies en Herbe, the French version of Reach for the Top, was Dumont's raison d'etre in high school. Dumont excelled at the quick and often brutal test of one's encyclopedic knowledge, and wanted everyone to know as much. In 1986, Dumont's team lost in the provincial finals and the chance to compete in France, triggering a monumental tantrum from Dumont. He hit his head against a wall repeatedly, and took to throwing pocket change around the room as his teammates looked on. He blamed himself, but also Radio-Canada, which, thanks to a technicians' strike, hadn't broadcast the tournament.

"He didn't perform as well because the television cameras weren't there," says his coach and mentor Gilles Ouellet. "It certainly affected his performance. He's brilliant and he liked people to know it."

Dumont took the quick wit he had honed on Génies en Herbe to Montreal to study at Concordia University and to eventually head up the Quebec Liberal party's youth wing. His favourite quotation was a professor's approximation of Plato: "The price of not engaging in politics is to be ruled by your inferiors."

He did a degree at Concordia's School of Community and Public Affairs, as well as a major in economics. His fellow students liked beer; Dumont's trip was politics, and he would spend upwards of 40 hours a week writing policy for the Young Liberals. Like just about everyone who met and mentored Dumont, professor Perry Calce often wondered about the politics of the shy, friendly and politically ambiguous student who always sat at the front of the class. "He had a belief in federalism," Calce says today. "He believed Quebec's political aspirations could be attained within the Canadian framework."

If there was one place for Dumont to explore the nuances between nationalism and federalism it was in the Quebec Liberal party's youth wing in the late '80s and early '90s. Liberal Premier Robert BOURASSA, himself at times a maddeningly ambiguous man, made sure his youth wing was well stocked with like-minded politicos - in part to ensure that the Parti Québécois didn't become the only party where Quebec nationalists could feel at home.

"You could be nationalist and Liberal at the same time," said Patrick Robitaille, a young Liberal who worked alongside Dumont and is now the ADQ's director general. "There was a Quebec flag everywhere. In my head I associated the flag with the PQ, which is false. It belongs to everyone."

The collapse of the Meech and Charlottetown constitutional amendments radically polarized Quebec politics. When Bourassa backed out of an intemperate threat to hold a secession referendum in 1992, Dumont led an angry nationalist walkout from the Liberals. He formed the Action démocratique with Jean Allaire, an accountant who had written a report demanding a massive transfer of constitutional jurisdiction from Ottawa to Quebec. Dumont dithered before joining Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard in the Yes campaign before the 1995 referendum. He took on ardent separatist André Néron as his chief of staff. His support of the Yes side was tentative to say the least. According to Le Temps des Hypocrites, Néron's devastating memoir, former Liberal youth wing leader Michel Bissonnette said Dumont's position "went from yes to no every half hour." Unlike Parizeau and Bouchard, Dumont abandoned his support for secession the day after the Yes side lost.

"We didn't consider Mario a sovereigntist because no one could remember the party's program," writes Néron. In 1998, again according to Néron, Dumont declared himself an "abstentionist." Today he calls himself an "autonomist." Why the change? "It's simple," Néron says. "He wanted to get re-elected."

John Parisella, who was Bourassa's chief of staff, also learned the hard way about Dumont's eerie pragmatism. During the Charlottetown negotiations, when Dumont was still with the Liberals, "I spent an hour explaining every detail of the accord," Parisella says. "He listened politely, didn't interrupt, said thanks and then left. He then denounced the accord. It was like he had ice water in his veins."

Bourassa could be opaque about his loyalties during a crisis, "but he always came down on the side of federalism," Parisella continues. "Mario? I'm not so sure. He has no interest in the rest of the country."

But when Dumont's first vertiginous rise in the polls happened - in 2002, as Quebecers grew weary of the Parti Québécois but seemed uncertain that Charest was fit to lead them - Dumont blew his shot, paradoxically, by seeming too cozy with English Canada. He delivered a lunch speech on tax cuts and small government at the Canadian Club in Toronto. The reviews in local papers were rhapsodic. But the speech was an utter disaster for Dumont back home: Dumont had forgotten to show up with a list of powers he would seek from Ottawa, or federal "intrusions" he would guard against. "The ADQ has made one big mistake, and it was that speech," says Guy Laforest, a Université de Laval political science professor who was the ADQ's party president in 2002. Standing in front of what Laforest calls "the biggest Canadian flag in the history of humanity," Dumont had blown his nationalist street cred. Laforest maintains the Canadian Club speech was partially responsible for Dumont's dismal showing in the 2003 election. To get it back, the party needed a new issue.

As it turned out, Dumont's very outsider status became his issue. Charest spent four years in office delivering very little of the ambitious "re-engineering" he had promised to get the premier's job. It tagged him as an establishment man - and, in a move that baffled observers, Charest ran this time out as the more-of-the-same man for a province that wasn't at all sure it wanted more of the same. As for Boisclair - gay, natty, with a documented history of drug abuse while he was a minister in Bouchard's cabinet - for many Quebecers he might as well have descended from Mars.

Contrast that with the man who rose from Cacouna. "Dumont was much better than the others at reading the public's mind," says Simon Langlois, a sociologist at Université Laval in Quebec City. "The keywords here were anxiety and concern, over globalization, U.S. protectionism, and demographic decline. Close to 100,000 jobs have been written off in traditional sectors such as lumber, pig-farming, light industries, most of these outside of Montreal," Langlois says. "It's a healthy reaction to question whether the [political and media] elites of Montreal have become disconnected from the rest of the province."

The issue, or thicket of issues, that crystallized Dumont's potent outsider status was the so-called "reasonable accommodation" debate, Quebec's term for a global dilemma: how far should local populations adjust their rules and habits to make immigrant newcomers feel comfortable practising their own traditions? The same questions arose when turban-wearing Sikhs wanted to join the RCMP 20 years ago, or when Ontario debated, then rejected, incorporating Islamic sharia law more recently. When a series of incidents raised the "reasonable accommodation" question last autumn, Dumont stood solidly for the right of old-stock Quebecers to demand that immigrants adapt to Québécois ways. Many saw Dumont as no better than a xenophobe. But most of those people were in Montreal. There's a whole province outside the metropolis, and its residents saw things a little differently.

Montreal is where people were cooking up a too-cool, hedonistic, multi-ethnic, French-speaking melting pot in America. But just like the big-city swells in Toronto and Vancouver who didn't see Stephen Harper coming a year ago, they mistook their life for that of their country neighbours. "That image of Quebec as a different society, with cool, chic values, was a little self-serving, and a tad artificial," Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, another long-time Bourassa associate, says. "In real life, small-town Quebec is not much different from small-town Canada." Voters supported Mario Dumont for the same reasons they supported Harper, Rivest says: "middle-class, suburban, individualistic values of NIMBY [not in my backyard] law and order."

Perhaps it should simply no longer surprise anyone to learn that one man who saw Dumont's rise coming was Harper. In a 1997 magazine article he co-wrote with political scientist Tom Flanagan, Harper said a pan-Canadian conservative movement must reach out to the so-called bleu strain of Quebec nationalism, which gave rise to Maurice Duplessis and the Union Nationale two generations ago. "While not in itself a conservative movement," Harper and Flanagan wrote, Quebec's bleu streak "appeals to the kinds of voters who in other provinces support conservative parties."

So now Harper, who only last summer was sagging badly in the polls, has an embarrassment of friends in Quebec. The Liberal government likes his version of federalism and the ADQ opposition likes his views of most other issues. Which explains the long faces on Gilles Duceppe and Stéphane Dion on Tuesday.

Duceppe had long been touted as a replacement for Boisclair as head of the Parti Québécois. But relegated to third-party status, the PQ may no longer be worth bus fare from Ottawa to Quebec City. Dion has, so far, been stymied at every turn in his own province by Harper. Dion spent half a decade arguing there was no "fiscal imbalance" that left Ottawa with more money than it needed and the provinces without enough. Harper claims to have solved the fiscal imbalance with his March 19 budget. Charest has promised $700 million in income-tax cuts straight out of Harper's fiscal-imbalance kitty. Dion supported Harper's parliamentary motion on the idea that "the Québécois" form a "nation within a united Canada," but in Quebec, Harper gets all the credit for the initiative. Dion thought he had a trump card: however diligently Harper might play to the nationalist-leaning editorialists, it was the environmentalist, "progressive" Liberals who appealed to Quebecers' true hearts. A bumper crop of ADQ rookies at the National Assembly makes that conceit pretty hard to sustain.

On Tuesday, Parliament Hill was alive with rumours of a snap federal election, so Harper could cash in the chits Quebec voters delivered to him on Monday. Harper insists he wants to keep governing, not to start yet another campaign. But whether Canadians vote now or later, it's already obvious that Quebec's latest, not-so-quiet revolution will have repercussions far beyond the province's borders.

Maclean's April 9, 2007