Mon dieu, they really like him

Can Ignatieff rescue his party’s reputation in La Belle Province?

Mon dieu, they really like himHe came to Quebec to flog his book, but Michael Ignatieff’s three-day breeze through the province felt a lot like an election campaign. He was on the radio, spinning his yarn about time spent on his uncle’s dairy farm in the Eastern Townships. He was on television, charmingly mangling his French syntax. His word on the bread-and-butter issue of identity—“What I offer to Quebecers is that you can be a proud Quebecer and a proud Canadian in the order you choose”—was an oft-repeated sound bite. “There is a certain curiosity about me here,” he said during one radio appearance.

Curiosity and, so far, approval. The polls have been very kind to Ignatieff since he became Liberal leader in December—particularly in Quebec, where the latest Ekos poll has the Liberals up 13 percentage points since the last federal election, in October. Two prior polls told a similar story: the party, once near death off the island of Montreal thanks largely to the sponsorship scandal and the disastrous reign of Stéphane Dion, has leapfrogged the Conservatives as the federalist party of choice.

It’s not quite a French kiss—not yet. Support for the Bloc Québécois has remained steady, and Iggy’s good fortunes likely have more to do with Stephen Harper’s collapse in La Belle Province than the Liberals’ damaged brand, which admittedly had nowhere to go but up. Still, internal Liberal polling conducted while Dion was leader showed Quebecers favoured Ignatieff (over Harper, Dion or one-time leadership hopeful Bob Rae) to handle the economic crisis. The poll also found Ignatieff’s “negatives”—the measure of resistance to a candidate—lower here than anywhere else in the country. And unlike Harper, whose support shot up in 2005 only after he promised Quebec a seat at the UNESCO table, Ignatieff the politician has yet to do anything concrete here beyond a book tour.

Part of Ignatieff’s allure, some say, is novelty. “He’s an unknown quantity,” says Antonia Maioni, a political science professor at McGill. A Liberal since becoming politically aware, Ignatieff has nonetheless been spared the scandals and party infighting. His books aren’t particularly popular in Quebec, and his views (and volte-face) on Iraq aren’t as publicized. Instead, he is known for his decent French and for being an intellectual. “Quebecers are more at ease with intellectual leaders,” says pollster Christian Bourque. “Quebecers supported Trudeau, Parizeau and Bourassa. Even René Lévesque was a serious journalist before he made the move to politics. There is a deference to authority here, maybe it stems from the Church, because we believe our leaders are people who can teach us something.”

But Quebecers may not like everything Ignatieff has to offer: his (more recent) conversion to the wonders of Alberta’s oil sands, for which the chattering classes have an abiding disgust. And as he found out last week, when he was repeatedly raked over the coals on Radio-Canada, many Quebecers who do know his politics believe Canada would have joined the U.S. in Iraq if he’d been at the switch. The Bloc has certainly taken note; it plans to make known Ignatieff’s political stances, past and present, from now until the next election.

“Our strategy will be to say the Liberals and the Conservatives are one in the same,” said Bloc MP Pierre Paquette. Ignatieff’s overtures “are pleasantries. Harper did the exact same thing before the last election, and Quebecers remember that.” In June, Parliament will vote on a Bloc bill that would effectively outlaw English in federal offices in Quebec. The Liberals, it is widely believed, will reject it—proof, Paquette says, that Ignatieff’s Quebec talk is just that: talk. Still, he adds, the Liberals will be important adversaries for his party. In Quebec, it is perhaps the greatest compliment you could pay to Michael Ignatieff: in just four months as leader, he and his party have become viable targets.

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