The Liberals' path to a possible majority government runs through Quebec

·6 min read
Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrive at a news conference in Montreal, on Monday, March 15, 2021.  (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrive at a news conference in Montreal, on Monday, March 15, 2021. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Quebec will loom large in the next federal election and recent moves by the Liberals suggest they're making a play for the Bloc Québécois-held seats that stand between them and a majority government.

On a number of files — the protection of the French language, Quebec's plans to make changes to the Constitution and Bill C-10, a piece of legislation with broad support within the province — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has struck a pose of openness to Quebec.

The Liberals are hoping voters in the province will be just as open to them.

Polls suggest the party is on the threshold of securing the majority government it failed to win in 2019. According to the CBC's Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data, the party would win around 171 seats if an election were held today.

The Liberals need at least 170 seats to win a majority government — which means their current polling levels don't give them much margin for error.

Quebec is an important piece in the electoral puzzle for the Liberals. It might also be the best place for them to find many of the seats they need to reach 170.

The Poll Tracker's seat projection model suggests that the Liberals have more upside in Quebec than anywhere else in the country, with the potential to pick up as many as nine more seats in the province.

The Liberals' best-case scenarios for gains elsewhere suggest they could win eight more seats in British Columbia, six in Ontario and five in Alberta, along with another five seats sprinkled across the Prairies and Atlantic Canada.

But some of those gains are easier to imagine than others.

Not all potential seat gains are created equal

Let's start on the West Coast. To get those eight B.C. seats, the Liberals would need to win ridings in the B.C. Interior, defeat Independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould and prevail in tight three-way battles with the Conservatives and New Democrats in parts of the Lower Mainland.

In Ontario, the question is whether the Liberals have hit their ceiling already. The party won 79 seats in Ontario in 2019, just one less than the 80 seats they won in 2015, when the Trudeau Liberals got their majority government.

The Ontario seats on the Liberal target list include some rural ridings — some with well-ensconced incumbents and some located on the edges of the Greater Toronto Area.

In both Ontario and B.C., Liberal gains would have to happen in politically distinct regions where the party would have to defeat both Conservatives and New Democrats. There's no guarantee the Liberals could pull that off.

What about Alberta? Let's be serious — the Liberals winning five seats there might look plausible on paper, considering the swing in the polls there since 2019, but that would require the Liberals to overcome enormous margins without the benefit of incumbents. Amarjeet Sohi, for one, is too busy running for mayor of Edmonton to try to win his Edmonton Mill Woods seat back.

Despite the likely effect of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's unpopularity on federal Conservative numbers, the polls may be again underestimating Conservative support in the province.
Despite the likely effect of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's unpopularity on federal Conservative numbers, the polls may be again underestimating Conservative support in the province.(Government of Alberta)

The polls also significantly under-estimated Conservative support in Alberta in 2019 and could be doing so again, even if Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is a drag on federal Conservative numbers.

Polls improving for Liberals in Quebec

That leaves Quebec. The Liberals won 35 seats in the province in 2019; the Poll Tracker now puts the likely range of Liberal wins in the province at between 35 and 44 seats. The top end of that range would put the Liberals — who were 13 seats short of a majority in 2019 — more than two-thirds of the way to the promised land.

The seats in question are overwhelmingly francophone and mostly clustered around the island of Montreal. With the exceptions of Beauport–Limoilou in Quebec City and Trois-Rivières in central Quebec, where the Conservatives might also be a factor, the Liberals' primary opponents in these seats are Bloc incumbents.

The polls have been good for the Liberals in Quebec lately. The party has 37 per cent support in the province, according to the Poll Tracker. Though there have been big variations in results — from 29 to 47 per cent in individual polls — more often than not, the Liberals have been closer to 40 per cent approval in Quebec.

That's a new development. In four of the last eight polls, the Liberals registered support of 40 per cent or more in Quebec. They did that only four times in the previous 19 surveys.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet might be playing defence in the next election to prevent the Liberals from winning some of the seats his party currently holds.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet might be playing defence in the next election to prevent the Liberals from winning some of the seats his party currently holds.(Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Yves-François Blanchet's Bloc Québécois, on the other hand, is polling at around 27 per cent, with most surveys putting the party below the 32.5 per cent they hit in 2019.

The shifts between these two parties have been the only significant signs of movement in recent Quebec federal polling. The Conservatives and NDP have both been stable and consistent at around 17 and 10 per cent, respectively — largely unchanged from last time.

The polls suggest that, since 2019, the Liberals have picked up about three points in Quebec, with the Bloc falling 5.5 points. When the Liberals score high in individual Quebec polls, the Bloc tends to poll lower. That suggests some movement going on between Liberal and Bloc voters.

Liberals courting the Bloc vote

So the Liberals' recent focus on Quebec makes political sense. In February, the Liberals brought forward proposals to reform the Official Languages Act to expand the right to work in French.

Outside of Quebec, Heritage Minister (and Montreal MP) Steven Guilbeault has come under fire over Bill C-10, controversial legislation meant to bring web giants under the purview of the Broadcasting Act. In Quebec, however, the bill has broad support and received unanimous backing in the National Assembly.

And when Premier François Legault's government brought forward Bill 96 — a piece of legislation aimed at protecting the French language that includes a proposal to change the Constitution to recognize Quebec as a nation and French as the language of that nation — Trudeau said that his government's initial legal analysis concluded the province could go ahead.

The Liberals' electoral analysis, meanwhile, might also conclude that the New Democrats are no longer a major player in Quebec, the Greens have big but unrealistic ambitions in the province and the Conservative offer to Quebecers appears similar to the one voters rejected in 2019.

To win a majority, the Liberals have to beat the Bloc at its own game. It is no easy feat to out-Quebec the Bloc. That doesn't mean the Trudeau Liberals aren't going to try.

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