For a taste of the challenges that could await Thomas Mulcair’s successor in Quebec, consider the following: On Tuesday, Longueuil-Saint-Hubert MP Pierre Nantel told le Devoir that he and possibly others might prefer to sit as independents than to serve in the House of Commons under any of the non-Quebec candidates vying for the NDP leadership.
In an open letter published Thursday, Nantel – who currently serves as the party’s heritage critic – writes that it was Jack Layton’s promise of a party respectful of Quebec’s national character that drew him along with many of the province’s voters to the NDP in 2011.
From his perspective, the fact that Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Jagmeet Singh have all spoken out against Quebec’s plan to prevent individuals wearing face coverings from dispensing or receiving public services amounts to a breach of that promise.
The bill currently debated in the National Assembly would essentially impact the minority of Muslim women who wear the niqab and the burka.
MP Guy Caron – the only Quebec candidate in the running – has said that while he disagrees with the bill, he would, as federal leader, respect the will of the National Assembly on the matter.
Ashton, Singh and Angus have argued that Quebec’s secular character should not be affirmed at the expense of constitutionally protected religious freedoms.
In his letter, Nantel warns that under a leader set on a collision course with the National Assembly on secularism, the NDP could lose its tenuous connection with nationalist Quebecers and, by the same token, set the cause of federalism back in the province.
Nantel will support Caron in the leadership vote, but there is more at play here than the jostling that often attends the last stretch of a competitive political contest.
Indeed, this MP’s crisis of confidence in some of his party’s values predates the entry of any of the current leadership aspirants in the campaign to succeed Mulcair.
In the last campaign, Nantel was one of a handful of Quebec New Democrat candidates who broke ranks and came out in support of the proposed Conservative niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies.
Back in January, the local media in Nantel’s Montreal South Shore riding reported that he was considering a run for the Parti Québécois (PQ) in next year’s Quebec election. On Wednesday, he described that scenario as “hypothetical.”
Nantel is a popular, hard-working MP. He would be a catch for a momentum-hungry PQ for more reasons than one.
His federal riding includes much of the provincial riding of Vachon. That happens to be the seat currently held in the National Assembly by Martine Ouellet, the latest leader of the Bloc Québécois. She is expected to vacate it to run federally in 2019.
In the last federal election, Nantel kept his federal seat with a slim 700-vote majority. The Bloc ran second with 27 per cent of the vote. If he were to make the jump to the provincial arena and a solid PQ riding, he would in the process provide Ouellet with as clear a federal run in Longueuil-Saint-Hubert in 2019 as she could hope for.
In terms of raw politics, this could be described as a win-win quid pro quo.
That being said, there is more to Nantel’s lament than an isolated case of positioning in the possible hope of a more promising political future under a different banner.
There is a widespread fear among the party’s rank-and-file in Quebec that the nationalist-friendly terms set out by Layton and Mulcair to bring the province under the NDP tent will become moot under a less Quebec-savvy leader.
And that as a result, the province’s New Democrats will no longer be competitive.
In his letter, Nantel readily admits that, in contrast with Caron, he is not a lifelong NDP supporter but rather a Layton convert. But the New Democrat predicament in Quebec is that the party has more supporters like Nantel than like Caron.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals assume that they would benefit from a fading NDP presence in Quebec. That assumption is almost certainly right when it comes to ridings such as Mulcair’s Outremont that happen to be home to a diverse and solid federalist constituency.
But in other areas of the province, it could give a breath of life to a moribund Bloc Québécois.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.