People and Places

ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 12): Analyzing Michael Ignatieff’s Quebec problem (a.k.a. André Forbes)

Day 12: Analyzing Michael Ignatieff’s Quebec problem (a.k.a. ex-Liberal candidate André Forbes)

I spent last weekend in Quebec City. It was nice to see some cheery French Canadians for a change, after so many weeks working on Parliament Hill.

I was not the only tourist in the Distinct Society. The Ignatieff campaign is in Quebec, hunting for votes in ridings that used to be owned by Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals.

I accidentally did an advance run of Ignatieff’s two-day campaign route, travelling a full circle around the St. Lawrence Valley from Pointe-Claire through the Eastern Townships, Drummondville, Quebec City, Trois-Rivières, and back to Montreal. The countryside was still locked in winter, with a foot of snow on the Plains of Abraham and dirty ice piles stashed behind the stone buildings of Old Quebec.

From what I saw and heard, Ignatieff has a long way to go if he hopes to win in that province. Most people seem to be ignoring the election. If they do put up signs, they’re for Bloc candidates in the countryside and Conservatives within the walls of Quebec City and in the ugly suburbs that surround it.

Ignatieff is a tough sell on a good day. He is, indeed, bicultural: in English Canada, some people run for their mallets and wooden heart stakes when they see the Count. In Quebec, he evokes cultural memories of the loup garou, and his staff has a hard time denying Ignatieff flinches every time he passes a roadside shrine.

(I just asked a Francophone friend if Quebec has a vampire myth, and he answered “Duplessis,” but these blog posts are already too history-heavy.)

The Québécois, like the U.S. Marines, love a winner and despise a loser. Anyone who doubts the bandwagon effect should take a look at the election of 1984, when the Mulroney Tories won Canada’s greatest electoral triumph by sweeping Quebec.

John Turner was supposed to take that election in a cakewalk. This was the golden boy who had romanced Princess Margaret and been the PM-in-waiting as the Trudeau regime decayed and withered away.

The Tories had to fill the party slate, and in many ridings in Quebec they were grateful to anyone who let their name grace the ballot. But midway through the campaign, Mulroney began looking like a winner and Quebec voters did something they had done since  the Diefenbaker landslide. The cabbies, farmers, depanneur night shift workers, and other no-profile candidates who had signed onto the PCs all of a sudden found themselves looking for cheap apartments in downtown Ottawa.

Ignatieff has the same problem. The star candidates are all running in Montreal. In the boonies, the Liberals have to take whatever help they can get.

In the ass-end-of-nowhere riding of Manicouagan, Mulroney’s home turf, these circumstances have resulted in the body politic coughing up a political hairball named André Forbes. The candidate has some rather interesting ideas that challenge the traditional Liberal embrace of diversity.

Forbes once ran something lyrically named the Association for the Rights of Whites. He has, um, problems with the Innu and Montagnais people of eastern Quebec and Labrador.

“We all know that the aboriginals will not keep their job,” Forbes told a reporter for the Quebec City paper Le Soleil in March, 2002. “I have worked for many years for Gulf Paper of Clarke City, which closed in 1968. I only remember one who did a good job.”

Over the years, Forbes had a few other choice public comments about Native folks, but somewhere along the line he decided to reach within himself and embrace his Inner Aboriginal. By 2009, he had jumped the fence from White to Métis and, as an active member of Métis Côte-Nord, was demanding Hydro-Québec listen to the concerns of the First Nations.

He did so by giving a big hug to the rest of the non-pure laine community: “If our Métis Community was made of Muslims, homosexuals, or an association of ladies making moccasins out of caribou skins, would Hydro-Québec consult with us? Yes,” he wrote in a 2005 letter.

It will be interesting to see what Ignatieff makes of this. Back in the far outlands of Quebec, this may be what passes as deep thought, though I wouldn’t put much more than pocket change on Forbes’ chance of election. Still, cutting Forbes loose is somewhat risky: in small towns closer to civilization, municipal politicians have won recent elections by tapping into a vein of xenophobia. Quebec’s nationalist political parties have rejected multiculturalism and the “reasonable accommodation” of new, unfamiliar cultures.

That leaves Michael Ignatieff, who lusts for seats in rural Quebec the way Brian Mulroney once lusted for thousand-dollar bills, stuck in a bind. Does he dance with the ones that brung him, or does he do the unthinkable: risk losing votes by standing on principle?

***POSTSCRIPT: Just 23 minutes after this post was published, it was reported that Ignatieff chose to fire Forbes. The Ignatieff campaign has learned something: quickly surgically removing troublesome candidates shows great crisis management and solid principles. Compare that to Harper’s insistence on protecting the guys who gave university students the bum’s rush.