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Understanding Québec’s Orange Wave Part Three: What Does the Orange Wave Mean?

July 28, 2011

4-minute read

Simon Tremblay-Pepin is a researcher at IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.

In my previous two posts I discussed how neither a rise in left-wing sentiment nor a surge in support for the federalist option caused the “orange wave” in Québec during the last federal election.

I will now offer my analysis of what happened during the federal election with regard to the outcome of the vote and, more specifically, suggest a number of  issues on which progressives from Québec and Canada can collaborate in the context of a Conservative majority government.

May 2nd election in Québec

So, if it was not for the sake of Canada or Tommy Douglas, why did Quebecers vote for Jack Layton?

Jack’s central advantage was that he was not Stephen, not from the Liberal Party of Canada and--perhaps surprisingly--was someone other than Gilles.

The vast majority of Quebecers clearly rejected Conservative politics by giving Harper even fewer MPs than the handful he had before the election. Indeed, Québec is the only province with considerably fewer Conservative MPs after May 2nd than before (while the number in BC declined from 22 to 21, Québec went from 10 to 5).

For a large number of francophones, and for sovereigntists in particular, voting for the Liberals (even if Ignatieff was “not that bad”) was impossible because of the lasting impression of disdain this party has for Quebecers’ aspirations: the Clarity Act and the Sponsorship Scandal (to name only two reasons) are still too present in Quebecers collective memory.

The next option: Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc. Despite the election results, I don’t think we can conclude that Quebecers were dissatisfied per se with the Bloc. However, they had grown tired of a certain discourse and tone, one not specific to the Bloc but that runs through the whole sovereigntist family, and may be even more acute within the Parti Québecois.

It’s the “Real Quebecers vote for us, the others are traitors” discourse, Québec’s take on “you are with us, or against us” — a rhetoric that once had its heyday, but no longer. A series of missteps from sovereigntist leaders and activists in social networks gave the impression that the Bloc was using this kind of dogmatic and vindictive discourse when Layton’s popularity started rising mid-campaign. It was the beginning of the end. Even as their numbers continued to plummet, instead of shifting course the Bloc continued with the same line. They only stopped on the night of their failure, with Duceppe offering a very sober and honourable discourse more indicative of his integrity and intelligence as a political figure

But why Jack?

Because the Green party is more or less a ghost in Québec, there was no option other than the NDP to which the majority of Quebecers could turn. But it takes more than a lack of options to explain why the orange moustache became so popular in la Belle province.

First: the political program of the NDP does not seem threatening to most Quebecers. No one can convince most Quebecers that Layton is a communist. And even if there’s no discernible surge in the left over here, the normal state of affairs in Québec looks a lot like the social democracy promoted by the NDP.

Second: contrary to what many people outside Québec may think, the NDP is not seen to pose a direct threat to sovereigntist ideas, or at least it poses less of a threat than the one posed  by Conservatives and Liberals. After the Bloc, it’s the most realistic option: federalist, but not clearly anti-sovereigntist.

So to summarize: the mostly anti-Conservative Quebecers voted NDP because they were tired of disdainful discourses from the Bloc and the Liberal Party of Canada -- and because Layton did not seem dangerous.

What can we do now?

In spite of the NDP’s support in Quebec, there is still a Conservative majority in Ottawa. And this result – the fact that a majority of Quebecers voted for a social democrat while a majority of Canadians outside Québec voted for a Conservative – should indicate the ongoing importance of the nationalist question in Québec.

Progressives from the rest of Canada may be asking: “If Québec is not turning left or becoming pro-federalist, can we still find common ground with people there?”

The answer is yes. Much more than elsewhere in Canada, Québec is generally open to progressive ideas. Take, for example, CBC’s Vote Compass results. Even if it was not scientific, with one million participants it gives some indication of fairly fundamental differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

On 83% of the questions asked, there is a difference (sometimes more important, sometimes less, but always clear) between Québec and all the other provinces on fairly crucial issues. On the 19 questions, easily located on a left/right spectrum, it’s clear that Quebecers are more progressive on a range of issues.

Table 1: Québec and Canada on specific issues

Québec more progressive (15/19) Canada more progressive (4/19)
Cut military spending Government intervention makes things better
Tar sands are bad Canada should not seek closer economic relations with the U.S.
Carbon tax is good Private sector should not play a larger role in health care
More environmental regulation More should be done to accommodate religious minorities in Canada
EI qualification should be easier
Wealthier people should pay more taxes
Corporation should pay more taxes
More RPC and RRQ









Source: CBC-UofT,, April 2011.

Generally in Québec, progressive ideas are welcomed and debated. You just need to be a bit delicate on the autonomy of our provincial government, because for 60% of the population, it’s the provincial government that matters most; for 40% of the population, that provincial government will form the base for a future country’s government.

But even in the area of progressive policy there still is a lot of work to do. Québec’s right-wing organizations have waged a long and loud campaign against public health care that has yielded results in public opinion. We surely could use assistance in that policy area.

In the end, it’s still “good old” Québec, with all its positive aspects and its contradictions. But let’s be honest; on a day-to-day basis, the rest of Canada hears little about our politics and we hear little about yours, so perhaps it’s no wonder many are oblivious to the reality on each side of the border.

Perhaps we can use May 2nd as a new beginning, the start of a new relationship between progressives in Quebec and the rest of Canada we can all build on. Can’t we?



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