The road to victory in national elections always passes through Quebec. The only question is whether the province with 78 seats to offer comes with roadblocks or a fast lane.
Two years ago, a resurgent Bloc Québécois played a large role in preventing Justin Trudeau and the Liberals from winning a second majority. McGill University political science professor Antonia Maioni said she believes the province is again shaping up as a key battleground.
In an interview airing Saturday on CBC's The House, Maioni said three-way races are a common feature in many suburban Quebec ridings — some of which were decided in 2019 by fewer than 2,000 votes.
"So there are, in fact, at least a dozen seats that could change hands," she said.
The 'joker' in the deck
"The two most important regions, I think, to watch right now are the regions around the city of Montreal. So that's what we call the North Shore and the South Shore, which are very rapidly growing suburban areas, as well as the Quebec City area. The Quebec City area is often the joker in political contests in Quebec."
Riding splits. Regional differences. Quebec is not just a distinct society — it offers a unique melange of issues.
Party support in the province can never be taken for granted. In 2011, Quebec was the epicentre of the NDP's "Orange Wave." Four years later, it was the Liberals' turn to capture the most seats. Two year ago, the Liberals and Bloc were neck and neck both in the share of the popular vote and seat count.
Competition between those parties remains fierce.
Take Shefford, a largely rural riding in the Eastern Townships. Since 2011, the riding has been won by the NDP, Liberals and Bloc. The race this year features a rematch between Bloc candidate Andreanne Larouche, who won by just under 900 votes, and Liberal Pierre Breton.
Supply management of the dairy industry is a big issue here. But so is climate change. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has already been to the riding, repeating his election mantra that this is a campaign about big ideas.
"We knew when Canadians elected us in 2015 that we had to go bigger, stronger and more concretely on fighting climate change and that's exactly what we did," he told reporters during the stop.
For the Conservatives, the focus is on expanding the party's presence beyond the 10 seats the party won two years ago in and around Quebec City.
The party has enjoyed a bump in opinion polls under Erin O'Toole. Perhaps as a result, the Conservative leader found himself the focus of one of the most spirited exchanges during Thursday's French-language debate, broadcast by TVA, on the issue of child care.
WATCH: Party leaders clash in first French debate of campaign 2021
Quebec's child care system is the model for the Liberals' proposed 10-dollar-a-day child care system. Both Trudeau and Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet pressed O'Toole on whether he would honour the deal reached with Premier François Legault's government that would see the province receive its $6 billion share.
O'Toole's platform promises to replace the Liberal plan with a program that would give money directly to parents. On Thursday night, he never directly answered the question.
Conservatives 'targeting ... suburban voters'
Maioni called it a "weak moment" for the Conservative leader.
"O'Toole's message was that the money will come in another way, but he didn't specify how. But one thing he did say, that I don't think was picked up on enough, is that ... his daycare plan will encourage and help suburban families," she said.
"And I think that's the message that we have to always remember. The Conservatives are targeting their message in Quebec. They're not, in effect, appealing to all voters, but they're targeting their message to those suburban voters in and around ... Montreal and to those Quebec City voters as well."
Dan Robertson is the Conservatives' chief strategist in this campaign. In a panel discussion also airing Saturday on The House, he said O'Toole was the prime target for the other leaders in the first French-language debate.
"This is Erin O'Toole's first time on this kind of a stage," Robertson said. "So I think he'll just want to look prime ministerial, talk about things that are important to Canadians and not get taken down rabbit holes on things that aren't important to people."
With the campaign now past the halfway point and with two more debates set for next week, NDP campaign director Jennifer Howard said the goal over the next two weeks is to reach as many voters as possible on issues such as housing affordability.
"Really, right now is about focusing in on a message that works with voters who are open to hearing it, finding where those voters are and making sure they're hearing from you," she said. "And that's what we will continue to do."
Two weeks is a long time in politics. The polls will change. Liberal campaign co-chair Navdeep Bains said nothing he has seen so far requires a change in their strategy.
"So we're going to continue to focus on our overall strategy, which is to drive the message around the clear contrast between us and the alternative, which for us is the Conservative Party in many of the ridings across the country."
But that's not true for many of Quebec's 78 ridings, where there's more than one alternative — and more than one contrast to draw.