Quebec Conservatives hoping to sway anglophone votes away from the Liberals

·5 min read

MONTREAL — As Quebec Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade spent Thursday campaigning in Sherbrooke and Gatineau, her Conservative counterpart Éric Duhaime was in one of her stronghold ridings in Montreal, looking to court her traditional base.

Duhaime is counting on making inroads with the province's English-speaking minority on Oct. 3. While Duhaime describes himself as a "nationalist," the former radio host said his vision is an inclusive one that sees anglophone Quebecers as allies, not enemies, in protecting the French language.

"Seventy-five per cent of anglophones in Montreal right now send their kids to French schools, bilingual schools or French-immersion programs," he said in an interview Thursday.

"We can't say those people don't want to live in a French society. Those people love French, they're allies."

While the English-speaking vote in Quebec has traditionally leaned Liberal, the party has been polling below 20 per cent overall.

Furthermore, the party has faced criticism from organizations representing English speakers over its handling of the province's new language law reform — known as Bill 96 — after the party initially proposed an amendment forcing anglophone junior college students to take three core courses in French.

Duhaime said he's offering an alternative to the Liberal Party — which he said has taken English voters for granted — and to the Coalition Avenir Québec government, which introduced the Bill 96. That law caps enrolment at English-language junior colleges, requires immigrants to communicate with the government exclusively in French after six months and introduces measures that some fear will limit access to health-care in English.

"The current premier has been very divisive on many issues," Duhaime said.

"During the (COVID-19) crisis, he split us between the essential and non-essential workers, between the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Now he's trying to split us between anglophones and francophones."

Duhaime's is not the only party hoping to woo away traditional Liberal supporters.

The Liberals are facing a challenge from two upstart parties that are hoping to make an impression on English-speaking, multicultural Montreal through their promotion of bilingualism and opposition to laws that are unpopular among non-francophones.

Both the Canadian Party of Quebec and Bloc Montreal have campaigned on promises to repeal Bill 96 and Bill 21, which prevents civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job, as well as Bill 40, which abolished most school boards.

Désirée McGraw, the Liberal candidate in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce riding, maintains her party is the best choice to represent English speakers.

"We are the only party in the (legislature) that voted against Bills 40, 21 and 96 — full stop," she said Friday in a phone interview.

"Nobody else can say that."

McGraw said the politics of running for the Liberals in Quebec can be "complicated" when the interests of English-speaking Montreal voters can sometimes seem at odds with the desires of the francophone majority — which has largely supported the language and secularism bills.

Even in the Liberal stronghold where she's running, she said she's received "an earful" about the proposed Liberal amendments to the language law.

Unlike the some of the Liberals' challengers, which she described as "interest groups" rather than parties, she said hers is a "big tent" party that aspires to govern for all Quebecers.

"We have no room for linguistic extremism on either side, and we believe we occupy the progressive center," she said.

As for the Conservatives, she suggested voters take a look at the entirety of the statements made by the leader and his candidates.

Duhaime's Conservatives, which received less that two per cent of the vote in the last provincial election, rose in support due to the party's opposition to public health measures brought in to slow the spread of COVID-19.

On Thursday, Duhaime was campaigning in Montreal's St-Leonard borough, an area known for its Italian population, and was scheduled to meet with a Jewish organization later in the day.

Duhaime said he wants Quebec to have more control over immigration and that the government should encourage immigration by people who already speak French and provide education for those who don't.

He also wants to increase the province's birthrate.

"It's always a concern when we see a people that doesn't reproduce itself," he said.

"It's great to have kids. Many people would like to have kids, but there's all sorts of barriers now that make young couples hesitate."

At a café on Thursday that Duhaime had been scheduled to visit — before he cancelled because of what he said was an overbooked schedule — the Conservative leader's name drew little recognition from a group of English-speaking customers.

Customer Dominic Vendetti said he had heard Duhaime’s name and heard he was a Conservative, but he said he knew nothing about his platform.

“It would have been nice if he was here, maybe he could have said something, but it’s not going to change anything. He’s going to split the votes all over the place,” he said.

Customer Nick Campana, who has voted Conservative in federal elections, said he's given up on the provincial Liberals.

"I voted for them all my life and after a while, you get fed up with getting backstabbed," he said.

However, he feels there is little that will stop the Liberals from winning the riding.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 2, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin and Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press