The Quebec voter has always given political strategists a hard time and fascinated observers with its unpredictability. As such it would be very foolhardy for a political analyst to predict with confidence the outcome of the current federal election in Quebec.
The federal parties’ campaign teams must strongly consider the opinions, values and culture of Quebec residents, which is not always clear to those from outside the province. This reality is also experienced by organizations based outside Quebec that wish to do business in the province.
As a firm with offices across Canada and in over 40 countries around the world, our Quebec team advises our national and global clients and creates public relations + public affairs plans that integrate the best ways to effectively communicate in the Quebec market.
The 2021 federal election provides an excellent opportunity to examine similarities between the approaches of the federal parties campaigning in Quebec and the approaches seen by various organizations conducting business in the province.
It’s only a matter of language, isn’t it?
The most obvious differentiator between Quebec and the rest of Canada is of course, language. Communications, whether public or with other private or governmental organizations, is conducted in French. A common but erroneous reflex that we often see is that it will be sufficient to simply translate communications into French. However, doing business in Quebec is more complicated than a matter of translation.
The values and ways of doing things are different here, as are the political, business and cultural environments. Your clientele, your stakeholders, and your competitors are not all the same. Even if the specter of Quebec’s independence is no longer an issue in 2021, Quebecers still have a strong sense of belonging and protectionism. In fact, it is on this nationalism that the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) built its political offer and why it was elected in October 2018.
In Quebec, the trend of buying local is growing, and when I say “local”, I mean “Quebecois made”, not “Canadian made.” If there is no Quebec choice, the Canadian choice will nevertheless be well perceived. But this creates an environment where smaller regional players can put obstacles in the way of well-established national and international organizations.
The same is true at the political level. The most obvious case is the presence of the Bloc Québécois (BQ), which has been in the political universe in Quebec for 30 years and which gets a significant number of members elected to the House of Commons in each election. Could any of the other three major parties (Liberal, Conservative, NDP) in Canada campaign in Quebec without worrying about the presence of the BQ? That would be highly inadvisable!
The Bloc will never come to power, but it can split the vote in some Quebec ridings. As a result, the political party can indirectly take away valuable seats from parties aspiring to form the next government and inherit a majority mandate. A simple “copy and paste” of the national strategy is therefore not enough.
It’s not enough to identify your audience, you need to understand your audience
Another example is market segmentation. Your typical customer or stakeholder in Quebec may be quite different than the one you are targeting throughout the rest of Canada. Using the political comparison once again, normally, a federal party can count on the presence of a provincial sister party, which ensures a voter base will be more inclined to vote for the federal big brother, as well as an established electoral organization (for example the Conservative Party of Canada and the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario). In Quebec, the CAQ forms a majority government with a high approval rating and voting intentions approaching 50%. With this strong leaning CAQ voter base in Quebec, this creates an interesting dynamic for a federal party to target and secure success.
The CAQ has no formal affiliation with a federal party, unlike many provincial governments in the rest of Canada. It is a true coalition of activists from various political backgrounds. In fact, would you be able to tell which federal party the typical CAQ supporter votes for? Polls show that there is indeed a wide diversity of allegiances among Caquists, split almost equally between the BQ, the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC), and the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC).
This makes it extremely difficult to target and secure the Quebec vote. The parties must therefore do things differently, notably by focusing more on specific themes or measures rather than strictly on political allegiance. The Quebec voter is open and attentive to proposals and is more focused on ideas, principles, and feelings than on absolute loyalty to a party.
This creates challenges as well as opportunities, the same is true for private organizations. It is important to understand the priorities of your audience or stakeholders and to ensure you do not take them for granted. They will certainly pay attention to your communication, but will not base their thoughts solely on questions of reputation or brand loyalty. The principle of “my family has always voted X, therefore I vote X” is not prevalent in Quebec. You need to understand the issues that drive them and find a response that addresses them.
Consistency + authenticity
A crucial element for success in Quebec is the presence of a trusted contact. For a private organization, having a French-speaking spokesperson, with an appropriate message that targets priority issues, as discussed above, is a great start. But none of this will help if you aren’t authentic. If you or your organization takes a strategic approach just to please and you don’t really believe what you’re saying, Quebecers will quickly detect it, and you will lose their trust. Parallels with political parties can again be drawn. For example, in 2011, the New Democratic Party (NDP) made spectacular gains in Quebec that had never been achieved before. Why? Quebec voters overwhelmingly embraced Jack Layton, not necessarily the NDP election platform. But the NDP platform was adjusted enough to make the political offer credible to Quebecers, which in turn secured votes on election day. But as noted earlier, the political loyalty of the Quebec voter is not assured, and the orange wave of the 2011 election was short-lived.
A lack of consistency is also a trap to avoid. It would be tempting to adjust our discourse for Quebec while maintaining a contradictory discourse in the rest of the country. But Quebecers will not be fooled! A striking example from this election concerns the tunnel project linking Quebec City and Lévis. This project is valued at $7 billion minimum and is polarizing the Quebec electorate, but is a priority of the caquist government.
The Conservatives have already announced that they are in support of the project, and will fund it. The NDP is against it, for environmental reasons. But both the Liberals and the Bloc are unable to take a clear position on this project. Like the NDP, they are making the calculation that they could lose the support of environmentalists by supporting this project. The LPC’s optimism about the Massey Tunnel project in British Columbia is difficult to reconcile with its hesitation about the Quebec project, this shows a lack of consistency.
The Liberal team has yet to find a satisfactory answer in the eyes of the Quebec government. And BQ leader Yves-François Blanchet, wishing to satisfy Premier François Legault’s demands, publicly endorsed the project, which caused several of his own candidates and his fiercely opposed Parti Québécois base of supporters to react negatively. He then corrected himself by claiming to have expressed a personal opinion and then concluded that his party was neutral.
Every ingredient is important
In order to be successful in Quebec, you will ideally need to build a strategy that incorporates all of the above principles, while adjusting it to the contextual needs of each organization and sector of activity. The various political parties running in the 44th Canadian federal election all have one or another aspect of their strategy that can make them vulnerable, and on the other hand, an opportunity to capitalize on the weaknesses of their opponents. It is important to be aware of this.
Being successful in Quebec for a pan-Canadian organization requires a special commitment and effort. This is especially true for federal political parties. It will be very interesting to see how they adjust their strategies to make gains in Quebec. With its 78 ridings, La Belle Province could play a crucial role in the achievement of each party’s objectives, whether it be a majority, taking power, or becoming the official opposition.