Cheese curds, sweet potato fries and curry gravy: a small crowd in a Montreal park, and the internet, were won over by Jagmeet Singh’s ‘Punjabi Poutine’ Thursday.
Even more of a PR win for New Democrats, as it turned out, was the branded poutine truck’s breakdown on the way to the event, thereby delaying the flow of gravy — endearingly, the most #cdnpoli kind of election problem, declared Twitter, as “Punjabi Poutine” trended on the site.
Spending three days of the third week of the federal election campaign in Quebec, Jagmeet Singh was pressed about what’s different this time around.
The NDP’s popularity has been steadily declining since the famed “Orange Crush” brought them 59 seats in 2011. In 2019, the party lost all but one.
Singh says people know him better now. The party can run on its record of pushing for increased pandemic benefits in the Liberal minority government.
“When we’re in Quebec, when we’re in Montreal, people have come up to us. Artists have come up to us and said, ‘Thank you for fighting for us. We know that you were the ones who fought to bring in more help to people, you fought to bring in more CERB,’” Singh said.
“They’re getting to like him, he’s a likeable guy,” said the poutine truck’s owner, Martin Poitras, who thinks the party can pick up more seats in his province this time.
Poitras added quickly, “I’m not an expert in politics, I’m a food truck owner.”
But political experts agree with the cheese man’s take: Singh is likeable, and the NDP’s chances to increase their Quebec seat count are looking up — just not as high as the party hopes.
New Democrats say they’re targeting between four and 10 seats in La Belle Provence. The recent candidacy of former MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in the riding of Berthier-Maskinongé is seen as the biggest boon.
“If it’s 10 seats, let’s open up the champagne on the 20th,” said former NDP press secretary Farouk Karim, who also worked in the party’s war room in the 2015 election.
“I would be happy if we pick up a few, like if we double or triple our numbers in Quebec, just to give us a foundation for the next time around.”
Karim supports the campaign’s targeted seat strategy, as opposed to blanketing the entire province with a potential waste of resources.
“I don’t think that the NDP is hoping for a new orange wave or winning a lot of seats in Quebec, but they need to maintain a presence in the province if they want to retain their credentials as a truly national party, a federal party,” said McGill University’s Daniel Béland.
One of the reasons Singh is asked repeatedly about a 2021 difference is the blatant racism he experienced during the 2019 campaign. In one incident caught on camera in Montreal, a man told him he should cut off his turban to look like a Canadian.
The debate over Bill 21, Quebec’s religious symbols law, was raging, and Singh was (and remains) the only federal leader to wear a visible religious symbol.
Every day in Quebec this week Singh has deflected the question of racism, giving what can be described as the clearest non-answer Friday, when asked whether he feels systemic racism is holding him back in Quebec.
“I don’t want to make anything about myself,” he told reporters, saying in general systemic racism was a problem that needed to be fixed.
The party’s last man standing in Quebec, candidate Alexandre Boulerice, was more direct Wednesday, saying he thinks Quebeckers are prepared to elect a prime minister who wears a turban.
“I’m not hearing that anymore,” he said when asked if issues of race come up at the door.
“We are in favour of a secular state, but there’s different kinds of secularism,” said Boulerice.
But political observers agree Bill 21 remains a challenge.
“The debate around religious symbols is still part of the political narrative in Quebec, and there’s a huge chunk of the electorate that will not consider voting for the NDP for that reason. It’s unfortunate, but that’s something the NDP needs to deal with,” said former NDP adviser Karl Bélanger, now with Traxxion Strategies.
Bigger picture, over the course of three days spent in Montreal and Quebec City, the conclusion was nothing major happened to change the party’s fortunes.
While in 2019, the TVA network’s French-language debate was a turning point that launched the Bloc Quebecois, the consensus was this first debate didn’t have a clear winner.
“The performance of Jagmeet Singh at the debate was OK, but there was nothing really to write home about,” Béland said.
You wouldn’t know that from watching Singh’s campaign team: when the leader boarded the flight to Quebec City late Thursday night after the debate, the whole team broke into resounding applause.
On his third and final day in the province, Singh launched a 19-page Quebec-specific platform. Barring some additions, much was promised in 2019’s Quebec platform, many items included that are in the party’s national 2021 platform, and there were several (immigration funding, boosted healthcare transfers) that line up with popular Premier Francois Legault’s laundry list of demands for any incoming prime minister.
“I think that they want to send a strong message to nationalists in Quebec that, you know, they are not going to centralize everything,” Béland said.
The timing of the policy drop, at the end of the three-day tour, raised eyebrows, with Béland saying he didn’t understand the strategy.
At first, neither party operatives, Boulerice nor Singh himself offered clear reasons for this strategy, beyond saying they would be back in Quebec again before the campaign was through, and they had lots to offer the province in the already released national plan.
Journalists travelling with Singh had been clamouring for an embargoed copy since the day before the drop, and were only provided one with fewer than 30 minutes to go before the media availability to question the leader about it.
When asked whether Liberals had a plan for Quebec Friday, Justin Trudeau said in French it was “bizarre” Singh released his after the debate, missing a chance to debate his Quebec platform in front of such a large audience.
That “bizarre” comment seems to have touched an NDP nerve, with campaign Special Advisor Marie Della Matia offering up a new comment on strategy Friday night as the tour hit St. John’s, N.L.
“The debate got people’s attention and now they are looking at us because we are talking about their needs. That’s the right time to highlight our offer to Quebecers,” she said.
Timing aside, no huge gain from the Quebec tour isn’t a problem for Karim, who says every modest lift is a big deal given the party started from further behind its competition.
“Since 2015 in Quebec it’s been a decline. So to see a rise, a little rise, and it is rising and people are positive and there’s a chance of doubling, tripling seats — gives a lot of energy to the team.”
When you start with one seat, there’s little place to go but up.
Abigail Bimman is a Global National correspondent, travelling with the NDP for the third week of the federal election campaign.