Quebec's general election campaign began in earnest on Sunday, sending the four main opposition parties out on the hustings to disprove the polls that suggest the Coalition Avenir Québec is cruising to another four years in power.
Against the backdrop of the iconic waterfalls of the Montmorency River in Quebec City, CAQ Leader and most recent premier François Legault told reporters he's not taking victory for granted.
"If there's one thing I learned during the pandemic, it's to be humble, because things change very fast," Legault said.
What has remained relatively unchanged for months, however, is his party's dominance in the polls, which have consistently put the CAQ at twice the support of its nearest rival — the Liberals — and heading to a majority bigger than the one it won in 2018.
Legault is campaigning on his party's economic track record. Salaries have never risen so fast, he said, the unemployment rate is low, and the wealth gap between Quebec and Ontario — which Legault admits he is "obsessed" with — has shrunk since 2018.
"Ask yourself the question, which party do you want managing your wallet for the next four years? Which economic team do you have the most confidence in?"
Aside from his economic record, Legault is also running on what he says are his achievements on identity issues. His government adopted Bill 21 in 2019, which bans public sector workers such as teachers and police officers from wearing religious symbols on the job. And in the spring of 2022, the government passed a strict language-law reform — Bill 96 — which expands regulations to more businesses, caps enrolment at English-language junior colleges and gives additional powers to language inspectors.
"We have defended our identity; I think that over the past four years, Quebecers have become more proud to be Quebecers," Legault said, adding that opposition parties want to "butcher" the two laws.
Meanwhile, Quebec Liberal Party Leader Dominique Anglade was already dogged by questions Sunday morning about the fallen stature of her once-mighty party. Despite forming the official Opposition before the legislature was dissolved, the Liberals have less than 17 per cent support, according to the latest Leger poll — and they are polling at about seven per cent with the francophone majority.
Anglade shrugged off the polls and said the campaign was an opportunity to "restart at zero."
Like Legault, Anglade said the economy will be the ballot box question. Businesses are suffering from a labour shortage, she said, while inflation has eaten away economic gains.
"Ask any Quebecer whether they're better off today than they were four years ago and they'll answer the question with 'no.' The reality is people don't have as much money in their pockets, people are really suffering from inflation, people have to choose between feeding their kids or paying the rent," she said.
In Sherbrooke, Que., the left-of-centre Québec solidaire, which in 2018 won seats outside Montreal for the first time in its history, positioned itself against what it called the tired old parties of the past 30 years.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, his party's leader in the legislature and choice for premier, said the CAQ is nothing but a coalition of the two legacy parties — the Liberals and the Parti Québécois — whose time has run out. The old parties, he said, have allowed the environment and the health-care system to deteriorate while they have proposed "patchwork" solutions.
“We tried, in Quebec, the Liberal Party. We tried the Parti Québécois. We tried combining the two, the coalition of the two … that's the Coalition Avenir Québec." This election, he said, is the "last chance" the province has to address climate change.
In Montreal, Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, whose sovereigntist party is far from the days when it was a serious contender for government, appealed to Quebecers' emotions. He said his "Cinderella team" will go further than anyone expects.
He called Legault "arrogant" and said the premier's version of federalism and the CAQ's language-law reform have failed. Even though the PQ is polling at less than 10 per cent, support for Quebec sovereignty is still above 30 per cent, he said, adding that millions of Quebecers believe in what the PQ stands for.
"Many of us see the decline in French," St-Pierre Plamondon said. "Many of us see that it's not normal to take our Quebec taxes and to be forced to send them to Ottawa, for them to be sent as subsidies and gifts to one of the most polluting industries in the world: the multinational oil companies from Alberta."
The fifth major party in this election is the Conservative Party of Quebec. Its leader, Éric Duhaime, took the party from near obscurity less than two years ago to one that is receiving about 14 per cent in the polls and has a good chance of picking up some seats. The party's only member of the legislature before it was dissolved was Claire Samson, who won in 2018 with the CAQ but switched parties in 2021.
Duhaime told reporters Sunday in the Quebec City area that his party is promising to cut income taxes, reduce the size of government and exploit the province's natural resources — including its fossil fuels.
"If you look at our promises … we have one thing that obsesses us more than anything else: improving the quality of life of Quebecers," he said. "We all have the sense that our quality of life has deteriorated under Francois Legault."
Before the dissolution of the legislature, Legault's party had 76 seats, while the Quebec Liberals had 27, Québec solidaire had 10 and the Parti Québécois had seven. The Conservative Party of Quebec held one seat and there were four Independents.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2022.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press