They're in the CAQ: Populism has conquered even calm old Canada
Upstart movement's victory in liberal stronghold of Quebec seen as rebuke to policies of Justin Trudeau
The provincial district of Gatineau in Quebec, just across the river from Ottawa, has for decades been a stronghold of Justin Trudeau’s sister party. But last Monday a little-known upstart populist movement made an election gain that has thrown a grenade into the Canadian political system.
The Coalition Avenir Québec (coalition for the future of Quebec, CAQ) swept up the seat as it was elected ruling party of Quebec, jolting the liberal established order that has existed in the Canadian province for nearly half a century, and prompting soul searching among dejected rivals.
The election marked the first time a populist party has come to power in North America, with immigration pushed to the fore in Quebec.
“With CAQ, people have a new option,” said Alexis Goudreau, 29, a former assistant to a separatist Bloc Québécois MP, who was part of a group that formed the CAQ seven years ago. His party’s leader, François Legault, a 61-year-old accountant and former airline executive, will be sworn in as the premier of Quebec in the next few weeks.
Both the leaders of the ruling Quebec Liberal Party – a sister party to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party – and the opposition Parti Québécois (PQ) resigned last week, with the separatist PQ gaining so few votes it is no longer eligible to be officially recognised as a party.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Legault, celebrating his victory. “I’m very touched by your trust in my team. And I cannot wait to get to work for you.”
Legault was elected on a platform to reduce immigration and distance himself from the liberalism of Trudeau in the capital Ottawa. He has promised to cut the number of immigrants by 10,000 a year, reducing it to 40,000. Those who come must pass a “Quebec values test”, and speak French within three years, otherwise their residency will be revoked.
A new “secularism charter” will ban the wearing of religious symbols such as hijabs, crucifixes and skullcaps, among public employees such as police officers and teachers. It is a sharp rebuke to the policies of the prime minister, who, despite his accolades abroad, has found the gloss has worn off at home.
The discontent spilled into the open in June, with the election in Ontario – Canada’s most populous province – of Doug Ford, a right-wing populist. Next year, Trudeau faces a tough battle for re-election, with his disapproval rating currently at 49.1%, according to CBC’s poll tracker. His rival, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, has a disapproval rating of 29.3%.
The Quebec election marks the first time the matter of independence is effectively off the table – none of the parties had pledged to provide a third vote on separating from the rest of Canada. That, say analysts, has freed up Québécois to focus on the issues that matter to them.
The CAQ won 37% of the popular vote in Quebec, with the Liberals attracting only 25%, their worst showing since Canadian Confederation in 1867. Goudreau admitted his party capitalised on the “fear” people have regarding an influx of illegal border crossings, particularly Haitians coming into Quebec from the US. But he dismissed accusations that the CAQ is racist, and said Quebecers were supportive of integrating “people who come the proper way”, helping them find jobs and learn French.
Ramez Chalhoub, a 46-year-old Lebanese-born former investment banker, runs Damascus Delights, a company he founded with a Syrian refugee to serve Syrian street food at six farmers’ markets in the Gatineau area and in Ottawa. “I don’t want it to become like in Europe, with nationalist parties that are anti-immigration and not wanting to include others,” he said. “But at the same time I believe that the second or third generation should adapt to the Canadian way of living.
“I don’t find any excuse for someone who has been here for three years, and has been paid to learn the language, and is not able to string together two sentences.”
Chalhoub said it was “a surprise” that the CAQ candidate, Robert Bussière, a former mayor in the region, won in his district, and he was watching with interest to see what he did. “Many people didn’t really know who to vote for,” he said. “They wanted a change, but didn’t necessarily have a good alternative.”
Françoise Boivin, a labour lawyer and former federal Liberal MP for Gatineau, saw the CAQ’s victory in her district as “a vote for change and against older parties”.
– © The Daily Telegraph