Quebec is key to election success, but for NDP the locks are rusty

As NDP continues to face low polls in Quebec, Singh "just wants people to know I fought for them" by pushing Trudeau on emergency benefits.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — For NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, the path to a stronger presence in Parliament runs through Quebec — but the trail is littered with obstacles.

New Democrats, whose members gather virtually for a policy convention this weekend, are targeting younger voters with renewed pitches on student debt relief, more affordable housing and a cap on cellphone and internet bills.

All were highlighted during a visit to la belle province last week.

But the party is polling below 20 per cent with little concentration of support outside of a few neighbourhoods in Montreal, says Karl Bélanger, president of consulting firm Traxxion Strategies and former senior adviser to the NDP.

"The prospects at this point are limited. But the potential of growth is there," he said, citing polls that show a majority of Quebec voters would consider the NDP as their second choice. The challenge is to convert this group to the orange team.

A flare-up of identity politics touching on issues from language rights to systemic racism — and fanned by the Bloc Québécois — threatens to cast the NDP on the far side of sensitive cultural divides.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continues to hog much of the spotlight during a federal vaccine rollout that has begun to flow more quickly, despite a shaky start.

Singh repeatedly states that the NDP fought successfully over the past year to beef up emergency response benefits, wage subsidies and sick-leave payments, and that Canadians recognize that achievement.

"I'm not so worried about recognition in terms of, like, I need people to be able to rattle off the NDP did this, this, this and that," he said in an interview.

"I just want people to know I fought for them."

But failing to get credit for programs unfurled with NDP input in a minority Liberal government has been the bane of New Democrats for decades at the federal and provincial levels.

Minority regimes under Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa and David Peterson and Kathleen Wynne at Queen's Park have all roared back to majority status come election day after co-operating with NDP lawmakers in various ways that proved electorally fruitless for New Democrats.

"He’s got a problem there," Brooke Jeffrey, a political-science professor at Concordia University in Montreal, said of Singh.

"(Liberals) have pulled the classic manoeuvre of accepting some of the NDP suggestions and making them theirs. And therefore if the public approves of them, it’s them who get the credit. This has been going on since Pearson’s time."

The Liberals' tilt to the left on issues ranging from pharmacare to government spending leaves the NDP forced to propose even more leftward policies if it wants to stand out, potentially isolating some voters, she added.

The NDP hit a high-water mark of 59 seats in Quebec in the 2011 federal election under then-leader Jack Layton, only to ebb to 16 seats in 2015 and just one in 2019, shrinking its organizational strength.

Alexandre Boulerice, the province's sole remaining New Democrat MP, says Quebecers and Canadians will view the NDP as the party of fresh ideas amid what he calls Liberal inaction on pharmacare, climate change and other fronts, with the COVID-19 pandemic leaving New Democrats well poised to seize on an era of big government.

"We will let (the) Bloc Québécois and the Conservative party fight for right-wing conservative nationalism, and we will go with solidarity and friendship with First Nations and racialized people," Boulerice said.

"Maybe Justin was able to do it seven years ago, but he's not the cool guy anymore. And he disappointed a lot of people. So we'll go after Liberal voters, especially young Liberal voters, and I think that technique is doing very well and will do better during a campaign, because he's a performer.

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