Unpredictable Quebec: why are the province's up-for-grab ridings so hard to call?
MONTREAL -- Unsuspecting Longueuil locals, especially those who live near Saint-Charles St., might have been a little overwhelmed this Wednesday if they haven’t been following politics.
That day, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet kicked things off in a park on that street, bright and early, with a press conference on “the promotion and protection of Quebec culture.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau closed out the day 50 metres away, on the same street, at a popular pub adjoining the same park.
For his part, he was trying to convince locals that the Bloc, back before 2015, allowed Quebec culture and language to be trampled under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Why all the fuss over a single block of Saint-Charles St.?
Well, the race there, in Longueuil-St-Hubert, looks almost exactly tied right now, with the Liberal challenger polling at just 0.1 per cent higher than the Bloc incumbent.
But Longueuil also represents a bigger toss-up zone, mostly in the suburbs around Montreal, that the Bloc and Liberals are fiercely contesting in their last few days before Monday’s election.
As usual, Quebec could make or break the bigger election results, helping deliver the Liberals their coveted majority—or denying it in a last-minute squeaker.
And as usual, Quebec voters are proving to be a little unpredictable. While most of the province’s ridings look set to keep their current MP, there are also about 10 that could go either Liberal or Bloc, based on current polling.
Even that is a change in the last week and a half, after the English-language debate delivered some extra momentum to the Bloc in the form of prickly, critical questions that got Quebecers’ backs up, particularly one about Bill 21.
Before that, the Liberals looked poised to take back more of the ridings it lost in 2019, when the Bloc unexpectedly surged to 32 seats.
Now, the two parties are neck and neck in many ways. Of those 10 or so contested seats, about half are currently Liberal, while the other half are currently Bloc.
The English debate and bigger questions of Quebec identity are certainly playing a part. Other than that, what are some factors that could send races in unpredictable directions?
IN EAST-END MONTREAL, LIBERAL INCUMBENT UNDER FIRE
The only race in the city itself that looks very close, Hochelaga is bringing enough suspense for the rest of the Island of Montreal.
"Me and my colleague are sensing it's pretty warm between the three parties - Liberal Bloc and NDP," said a cafe employee in the heart of Hochelaga. "Before it was more of a contest between the Bloc Quebecois and NDP but this election we feel that the three parties. It's really hard to tell."
After very tight race in 2019—the Bloc lost by just 319 votes—the Liberals are trying to hang on in a three-way race, with the Bloc a close second but the NDP making a strong showing.
On the other hand, this riding has swung so much over the decades, it’s hard to be sure where people’s loyalties lie.
A certain project has also created a tough election for the Liberal incumbent, Soraya Martinez Ferrada, says Daniel Béland, the director of McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada.
A transshipment project under construction would link with the Port of Montreal—and bring about 1,000 trucks through Hochelaga per day. The owners, Ray-Mont Logistics, have faced protesters and had their equipment torched by residents in the last few weeks alone.
It’s bad timing for Martinez Ferrada, Beland said.
“This has put the incumbent Liberal MP on the spot, because she said, you know, this is an issue between the city and the company, and the federal government cannot do much about this.”
It wasn’t what locals wanted to hear, especially coming out of a major protest over the project in the spring, Béland said.
“It may have an impact on the race,” he said.
“Because the Liberals won by only a few 100 votes last time, the Bloc, you know, are really thinking this is one of the Liberal ridings that they could win.”
ON SOUTH SHORE, A BATTLE FOR FORMER NDP VOTES
A tale of two ridings helps show what the Bloc—and equally, the Liberals—are up against in the suburbs around Montreal.
On the South Shore, four ridings are in play. But voters there have shown “unstable” loyalties, Béland said. They tend to keep their candidates guessing, and when a certain bloc of voters swings to a new party, it’s not always obvious which way they’ll swing.
Longueuil-St-Hubert, where both Trudeau and Blanchet converged this Wednesday, is a great example.
There are a lot of votes up for grabs, said Béland, because a fairly popular former MP for the area—NDP-turned-Green Pierre Nantel—isn’t running this time around.
In 2019, Nantel picked up 11 per cent of the vote, leaving a mystery this time around over which way his 6,000-plus supporters might turn.
“The votes on the left, the Green, the NDP, are likely to decline, and if it does then that could benefit the Liberals,” Béland said.
But with the Liberals up just 0.1 per cent in polls right now, it’s hard to say if that theory is holding up.
“Considering what's happening with the question of the debate last week and the fact that the Bloc is doing better, there’s a possibility for the Liberal to take it,” Béland said, “but I don't think it will be easy.”
Next door, the riding of Longueuil-Charles-LeMoyne is in the opposite, yet identical, situation: it has a Liberal incumbent who’s battling hard to hold her seat against a strong Bloc challenger.
Liberals have often held this riding, but the numbers show their support has been waning. Liberal Sherry Romanado edged out the Bloc last time by 1,300 votes.
Loyalties in this riding also haven’t been stable in other ways; like in Longueuil-St-Hubert, it was one of the areas that went orange in 2011.
That means that before the debate boost of the last week—long before, years before—the Bloc were heavily targeting this riding, thinking, as in the case of Hochelaga, they could seal the deal in this election.
The Liberals may again, as in the neighbouring riding, be counting on a collapse in Green and NDP support, and hoping those votes will head their way.
This election may be like no other in Canadian history, happening amid the pandemic, the climate collapse and a myriad of other unique crises. But in Longueuil and similar ridings, there’s a much longer game being played, and a more familiar one.
For the Bloc, in Longueuil-Charles-LeMoyne, they may have lost the last election, but “they gained ground last time compared to 2015,” said Béland.
“The Bloc think they could take this one.”
Do you live in one of the dozen nailbiter ridings in Quebec? Let us know what’s on your mind this election by emailing MontrealDigitalNews@bellmedia.ca.