Nycole Turmel’s history with sovereigntist parties in Quebec may came as a shock to some, but to anyone familiar with the political landscape of the French-speaking province there is nothing surprising about it.
The new interim leader of the New Democrats was told to expect a rough time when she was handed the job, and it did not take long for the prediction to come true.
But reactions to the revelations of Ms. Turmel’s history with the Bloc Québécois and Québec Solidaire have been mixed, depending almost entirely upon the language in which the reaction was expressed.
In francophone Quebec, the consensus has been that the most disappointing aspect of the story is that Ms. Turmel was not entirely open with the public about her past political affiliations. The affiliations themselves, and the fact that she switched allegiances, has not been highlighted as an issue. Indeed, when approximately two-thirds of Quebecers have flirted with sovereignty at some point in their lives (Léger Marketing pegged support for sovereignty at 64 per cent in 1991), the idea that someone might go back and forth on the question is hardly newsworthy.
In English Canada, however, the reaction has been explosive. That she gave up her membership to the Bloc only a few weeks before becoming an NDP candidate is one thing, but that she was still a member of Québec Solidaire (though known in Quebec for its radically left-wing nature more than its sovereigntism) was proof positive that the current leader of the Official Opposition may not be so loyal to Canada.
Considering the results of the last federal election, Canadians are going to have to get used to the idea that the NDP probably has quite a few sovereigntists among its supporters in the province. This was not a problem in the past, prior to the formation of the Bloc Québécois, when sovereigntists voted for and were members of the federal Liberals and Tories, bereft as they were of any other federal option.
The New Democrats are following in these footsteps, and its Quebec wing is emerging as a progressive coalition of federalists, nationalists, and sovereigntists. Perhaps Ms. Turmel is a perfect example of this. As has been noted elsewhere, the left wing of Quebec has been tied with the sovereignty movement for decades. The Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire are the only left-of-centre options in the province, and until the NDP became a real player in Quebec politics the only reliably left-of-centre federal option was the Bloc.
But if the Bloc was to be replaced, as many Canadians hoped they would be, this was inevitable. Bloc voters needed somewhere to go, and on election night it appears that roughly 41 per cent of the NDP’s new supporters in the province came from the sovereigntist party. Another 27 per cent or so came from the Liberals, 15 per cent were new voters, and 13 per cent were former Conservatives, based on the change in raw votes from the 2008 election.
Indeed, in a Léger poll conducted shortly after the election 33 per cent of Quebec NDP voters said that after 20 years of Bloc dominance in the province they were ready for something else, while 17 per cent said that the NDP represented a good alternative to the Bloc as their values were similar.
This shift in support has changed the make-up of the New Democratic voter in Quebec. On issues related to unity and identity, remaining Bloc supporters fall heavily on the nationalist side of the equation while Liberals and Conservatives are mostly federalist. The NDP straddles both groups.
For example, another Léger poll reported that 50 per cent of Quebec NDP voters believe federalism has more advantages than disadvantages for Quebec. But 39 per cent disagreed. Only 32 per cent of NDP voters in Quebec thought that the province was treated with due respect by Canada, compared to about two-thirds of Liberal- and Conservative-supporting Quebecers.
The choice of Ms. Turmel as interim leader and what it says about the party’s judgment and preparedness is worthy of debate, and that debate has been argued differently by the two solitudes. But Ms. Turmel is emblematic of what the New Democrats in Quebec now represent. Canadians have long wished that the Bloc Québécois would simply go away, but thinking that their former supporters would disappear as well may have been unrealistic.