SAGUENAY, Que. — Liberals in Saguenay, Que., where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his caucus are meeting, say the tide is changing here and that local residents are willing to shed their support for sovereignty in order to board the federal gravy train.
Marc Pettersen, the Liberals' candidate last fall in the nearby riding of Jonquière, told The Huffington Post Canada Thursday that his region is becoming less and less sovereigntist.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters during a two-day caucus meeting on Aug. 25, 2016 in Saguenay Que. as MP Denis Lemieux looks on. (Photo: Jacques Boissinot/CP)
"This mentality is starting to change," he said. "We realize that the sovereigntists are so sure of being elected that the money for economic development, they [the governments] don't give it to us," he said.
It's better if an MP isn't sure that he's going to win the next election, he said, because he'll work harder to get something for the riding.
"But if you're sure you're going to win," he said, "the money is going to be invested elsewhere, in a place where the party isn't sure it can win."
Pettersen, who lost by 339 votes to the NDP, lists off a few examples where the former Parti Québécois government in the province passed over local firms in favour of other areas where the PQ was hoping to pick up Liberal seats.
'We have a good prime minister'
He noted that two provincial Liberals — including Premier Philippe Couillard — were elected in 2014 in the former sovereigntist fortress, and said the winds are also starting to change at the federal level.
"We have a good prime minister," Pettersen said. In 2019, the Liberals will be re-elected, he said, and people will tell themselves: "We want to join this ship. We don't want to sit on the sidelines."
Pettersen, currently a city councillor, said he is hearing this from his colleagues in municipal politics. "People are realizing that, in Jonquière, if we had that seat, maybe we would be able to get more things."
Rémi Gagné, the mayor of Rivière-Éternité, a community about an hour's drive away, told HuffPost he used to be an ardent sovereigntist. But no more.
"We want to join this ship. We don't want to sit on the sidelines."
"We need to think about other things. We need Canada to survive, and that's where we are at now. I was a staunch sovereigntist, but today my mentality has shifted."
Gagné thinks the region could turn red federally, and he said this week's visit will help.
"It's rare that our prime minister of Canada comes to visit Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean. The MP must have made some efforts to bring the prime minister in the region," he said, visibly impressed. "Government announcements will come."
Gagné, who is lobbying to get a funicular built so more visitors can visit a Notre-Dame-du-Saguenay statue built in 1881 atop a cliff near his town, said he trusts his new MP, Liberal Denis Lemieux — the first Grit elected here in 15 years — to get the prime minister's attention.
Rémi Gagné, the mayor of Rivière-Éternité, used to be a sovereigntist. (Photo: Althia Raj/HuffPost)
Speaking to approximately 500 invited guests at an event in Chicoutimi, Que., with the prime minister on Thursday evening, Lemieux noted how quickly things are changing in the area.
"I want to remind you that, exactly two years ago, when I was selected as the candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada, you had to hide to be a Liberal in the Saguenay," he said.
The day after he obtained the Liberal party nomination, he said, a local Radio-Canada journalist told him: "We thought you were a smart experienced guy. What were you thinking about when you decided to become candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada? The last election, they got only 2,800 votes. They came in fourth!"
In October, Lemieux won the election by 600 votes, obtaining the support of 13,619 electors.
It was a big jump, from the Grits' 2011 result of 2,852 votes.
'Are there Liberals in the room?'
A happy and relaxed looking Trudeau told the crowd he could think of no better place than the "Kingdom of the Saguenay" for his 181 MPs to caucus outside Ottawa for the first time in his mandate.
He praised Lemieux as a fantastic MP. "He is the perfect example of someone who really has their heart in their riding," Trudeau said, while Lemieux stood beaming on stage by his side, fist on his heart.
"I've said it for years — what it takes in Ottawa is people who are going to be the voice of their riding in Ottawa and not Ottawa's voice in their riding, and that is exactly what you have with Denis," Trudeau said, while Lemieux, still beaming gave a thumbs up.
Trudeau noted how he came to campaign with his Liberal candidate last year. "It was more difficult back then to recognize Liberals in the Saguenay.
"Are there Liberals in the room?" Trudeau yelled out to a loud resounding 'Yes'.
Serge Simard, the Liberal MLA for the provincial riding of Dubuc. (Photo: Althia Raj/HuffPost)
"Things are changing," said Serge Simard, the Liberal MLA for the provincial riding of Dubuc in the region. Simard was born and bred in the Saguenay and has been elected twice, first in 2008 and again in 2014, after losing to the PQ in 2011.
"People here … identify with the Parti Québécois," he said, "but every time the PQ is elected nothing happens in the region, because the PQ takes the region for granted."
With the Internet, Simard said, people — especially young people — want to explore the world. They don't want to be confined to their own community, he said.
"We've evolved, like everywhere else," he said.
Economy top of mind with voters
Residents don't want to talk about sovereignty, he added; they want to talk about economic development and jobs.
"Make work for me so I can have a livelihood, and I can feed my family. I want to be independent. I want to work. People want to work."
Simard also thinks Trudeau's visit to the Saguenay will improve the Liberals' overall fortunes in the region.
"It's like door-knocking. When you go see people, they say: 'I'm so happy you came to see me. Thank you. We have confidence in you.' That's what people want," Simard said. "Going to a region, it's is like going to a home, when you have a big country."