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The hard truths of Quebec's electoral map

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe casts a shadow on a campaign backdrop as he speaks to a rally at a CEGP de l'Outaouais in Gatineau, Que., on April 14, 2011.


Poll numbers may rise and fall, but Quebec's immovable federal voting blocks don't yield to gentle nudges from the popular vote.

NDP Leader Jack Layton managed to create quite a buzz to end the campaign week with polls suggesting he's becoming very competitive with the two other federalist parties in Quebec. Conversely, a certain softness was noted in the strength of the Bloc Québécois.

The hard reality of the province's federal electoral map was a bit lost in the brouhaha.

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Unlike the other parties, the NDP has no bastion of support in Quebec. The party's vote is a mile wide and an inch deep. Even if popular support grows substantially, it's spread so thinly the party still can't win significant numbers of seats without a very drastic change in the political landscape.

The inefficiency of NDP support contrasts with its two federalist competitors and, especially, the Bloc Québécois. The Bloc still has many ridings with plenty of room to allow for the party's steadily shrinking vote.

Alberta may be known for being nearly all Conservative, but Quebec has more seats that are far out of reach to second-place competitors. Unlike Alberta, those fortresses each fly one of three party flags.

The 2008 federal vote was no landslide election, but 43 of 75 seats were won in Quebec by a margin of 10,000 votes or more. While upsets are always a possibility, most of those won't change hands without major upheaval on the federal scene.

Thirty-one of those seats are held in sovereigntist bastions by the Bloc Québécois.

After spending the 1990s divided, Tories have rediscovered the blue streak in areas of central and eastern Quebec with a long tradition of a conservatism. Stephen Harper holds four seats by those big margins.

Liberals may still suffer in the province from the lingering stench of the sponsorship scandal, but their enduring image among anglo Quebeckers as the defenders of national unity means the Grits have eight ridings that are likely to remain untouchable. Michael Ignatieff would have to err egregiously to lose very many of those.

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On top of the 43 stronghold ridings, another 15 had margin of victory between 5,000 and 10,000. Many of those can also be counted as long shots for challengers who will need more to reverse them than a flat election campaign with promise of a return to status quo.

So what does that leave?

Seventeen seats in Quebec can count as close enough to swing. One held by independent MP André Arthur seems set to go back to the Bloc. The 16 others could be considered tossups, but are likely to be split among the Bloc, Liberals and Conservatives.

There is no hint of a blue or red wave building to hit those areas. Some are Bloc versus Liberal races in and around Montreal. Others are Bloc-against-Conservative ridings around Quebec City and still more are scattered around the countryside, where voters will have to choose between their sovereigntist and conservative impulses.

The NDP could win a couple seats, including the one in the heart of Montreal currently held by high profile incumbent, Thomas Mulcair.

New Democrats could have influence in other ways. Decent growth for the NDP in a half dozen ridings contested between the Bloc and Conservatives will mostly come from the sovereigntist party. That split could help Conservatives.

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But the NDP's capacity to grow its vote, create splits and sway Quebec results is not clear in most regions. In about half of the tossup races in and around the big city, NDP voters are as likely to come from Liberal ranks as from left-leaning Francophone Bloc voters.

A few events could change Quebec's electoral map radically, but they haven't happened in this campaign - and they're not likely to take place, either.

Gilles Duceppe could run a disastrous campaign. Or he could quit. His charismatic and firm leadership may be all that holds the Bloc together, and in the esteem of Quebec's nationalist voters.

The federalist parties could also some day come up with their own strong, charismatic leaders who are embraced as a native son or daughter by all Quebeckers. As Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney showed in the 1980s, that's usually the means to turning Quebec's electoral map upside-down.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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