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Readings in Quebec History


Last revised:
August 2008

Quebec and Federal Elections, 1867-2006


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

At the time when Confederation was seriously under discussion, much attention was focused, by the Fathers of Confederation, on the Federal Parliament. There were long debates on Ontario’s insistence on Representation according to Population and for the other provinces to obtain safeguards against the possibility that one day Ontario might contain the majority of the population of Canada, and hence control the House of Commons of the country. The position and role that each province was expected to play in the Federal government and Parliament was carefully weighed by all parties, and the colonies that were least populated hesitated in joining the union, for fear that they would not have a strong enough voice in the political institutions of Canada. Quebec, although a large province, also expressed fears as to its participation and influence in the new federal government. However, Cartier assured his compatriots that if he was given 65 strong members from Quebec to follow him, that he would continue “to make and unmake governments” in Confederation, as he had done, he claimed, during the period of the Union. Thus, they should not fear, as their influence in federal affairs would continue to be great. Was that promise fulfilled? What influence has Quebec had in federal elections since 1867?

Essentially, the analysis presented here is divided into two parts: first, a macro-study of the three periods that the voting pattern of Quebec seems to disclose. This study is based on the data that is found in the statistics’ part of the site. Aside from identifying the characteristics of each period, an attempt will be made to explain the shifts that took place. The second part will examine the characteristics of Quebec’s vote in federal elections. On the whole, Quebec has voted as a block, has voted for the winner, has supported the “favourite son” and has refused to vote for third parties, unless they came from Quebec and were specifically dedicated to defending the interests of Quebec. Overall, a great deal of rationality was displayed by the people of Quebec in their voting behaviour in federal elections.


The three periods in the Quebec voting pattern


  • The Conservative period (1867-1891): In the period after Confederation, the Quebec voting pattern continued the trend that had been established prior to 1867, especially in the period of 1848 to 1851. At that time, the leader of the French Canadians, Louis-H. Lafontaine had united with Robert Baldwin to lay the foundations of the Liberal-Conservative coalition that was to be known eventually as the Conservative party. The party was based on the idea of compromise between the sectional interests of Ontario and Quebec, and a modest package of reforms, including Responsible Government. It respected the autonomy of its constituent parts, which in Quebec meant the “bleu” policies, ultramontane support, pro business stances, dual leadership and efforts to secure anything essential forla survivance. By the time of Confederation this coalition was led by George-Etienne Cartier, an ally of John A. Macdonald who was the Prime Minister after Confederation (1867-1873, 1878-1891). Until the elections of 1891, with the exception of the 1874 election following the Canadian Pacific Scandal, Quebec remained solidly behind the Conservative party. For a long time, there appeared too few reasons, if any, to vote otherwise. Macdonald paid attention to Quebec, made certain that it got its fair share of patronage, stayed away as much as possible from contentious issues, always kept the counsel of a strong lieutenant from Quebec (Cartier, Chapleau, Langevin) and manoeuvred reasonably well through the minefield of sectional issues. The crafty politician managed to keep the support of the Catholic Church of Quebec at the same time as the Orange lodges of Ontario!
  • The Liberal period, 1891-1980: While the hold of the Conservatives over Quebec appeared to be strong until 1891, in reality several factors were coming together toward the end of the first period to doom the Conservative party in Quebec. First, there was the ageing leadership of the party [see Lovell C. CLARK, « Macdonald’s Conservative Successors, 1891-1896 », in John S. MOIR, ed., Character and Circumstance, Toronto, Macmillan, 1970, 239p., pp. 143-162] and the losses which death or resignation brought [Cartier, Chapleau, Langevin; on this point see H. Blair NEATBY and John T. SAYWELL, “Chapleau and the Conservative Party in Quebec”, in Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 37, No. 1 (March 1956): 1-22 and Andrée DESILETS, “La Succession de Cartier, 1873-1891”, Société historique du Canada, Rapport, 1968, pp. 49-64]. Then there was a continuous rift between the ultramontane faction of the party and its more moderate wing in Quebec (the moderates will leave to join the Liberals). Also, the Conservative party found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the Quebec wing of the party with the Ontario one. The issues of Riel and minority schools profoundly divided English and French Canada, and the Macdonald government, caught between the two, did not manage these issues well, or at least, did not manage them to the satisfaction of many people in Quebec. Mostly, the Liberal party took steps that were to result in a great deal of success in Quebec: they proceeded to shed the old “rouge” radical image that so frightened the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec, they challenged before the Courts the “undue influence” the Church exercised in political affairs [see the case of Brassard et al. V. Langevin, Supreme Court Records, Vol. 1 (1977) pp. 145-234. This case of Undue Influence is well known as it involved Hector Langevin himself. His election was declared null and void. Langevin's brother was the Bishop of Rimouski!], they divested themselves of the old Clear Grit tradition, with its explicit intolerance toward Quebec, and most importantly, they chose Wilfrid Laurier, a French-speaking and Roman Catholic Quebecer, to be the leader of their party [on the role of Laurier, see H. Blair NEATBY, Laurier and a Liberal Quebec; A Study in political Management. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1973, 244p.]. Already, following the Riel hanging in 1885, Macdonald had lost the political control of Quebec; with the election of Laurier to the leadership of the Liberal party, the transfer of the political allegiance of Quebecers to the Liberal party was completed. From 1891, there started the long love affair between the Liberal party of Canada and the province of Quebec. It was to last until the elections of 1984. Only once in 26 elections, in 1958, did Quebecers not give the plurality of their federal seats to the Liberal party! One could hardly imagine more faithfulness to a political party.

    What is the explanation for this long Liberal ascendancy? At the outset, one should note that nothing resembled more the Conservative party (and policies!) of the XIXth century than the Liberal party of the XXth century. Both were run on the basis of compromise, with a sharp eye on keeping French and English Canada satisfied. Both managed the question of “la survivance” very well and stayed away from divisive issues. When such issues had to be confronted, they were sensitive to the Quebec point of view as was shown with conscription in the Second World War; Quebecers did not miss the sharp contrast between the way King had managed conscription compared to Borden in the First World war, or the way the Conservative party proposed to deal with conscription in the Second World war [ see J. L. GRANATSTEIN, The Politics of Survival: the Conservative Party of Canada, 1939-1945, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1967, 231p.]. The Liberals sought to bring prominent Quebecers into their party, listened to their counsel, promoted them and, in this period, chose three of them to become leaders of their party [Laurier from 1887 to 1919, St. Laurent from 1948 to 1957, Trudeau from 1968 to 1984]. When the party was led by an anglophone, a strong Quebec lieutenant was associated with the leader and somehow endowed with extra prestige; Ernest Lapointe was the classic example. Not only could Quebecers recognise themselves in the leadership of the Liberal party, they could also relate to their policies. Increasingly, the Liberal party promoted an image of a bilingual and bicultural Canada [the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was appointed by Lester B. Pearson], of a tolerant society, charting an independent course from Great Britain and devising social programmes in the interest of ordinary Canadians. By contrast, the Conservative party appeared foreign, as “le parti des Anglais”, pro business, imperialist, opposing all the symbols of nationhood, including the flag that Quebecers strongly supported. Their leaders were perceived as not so open and tolerant, and caring very little about Quebec [see Marc LA TERREUR, Les Tribulations des conservateurs au Québec. De Bennett à Diefenbaker, Quebec, Presses de l'Université Laval, 1973, 267p.]. The memo of Gordon Churchill, in the late 1950’s, questioning the need for the Conservative party to seek support from Quebec was both instructive and typical in this respect [see Gordon CHURCHILL, "Recollections and Comments on Election Strategy", in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 77, No 4 (winter 1970): 499-511]. Only when Robert Stanfield, and later Joseph Clark, became leaders of the Conservative party did the party start to make inroads into the hearts and minds of the Quebec people. Both set out to master the French language, the first among Conservatives to have done that seriously, with the possible exception of Robert Manion, whose wife was a French Canadian, and who was the leader of the Conservative party in the late 1930’s.

  • The post patriation period, 1984 to today: The Liberal dominance of Quebec came to an abrupt end with the patriation of the Constitution without the support of Quebec in 1982 and the subsequent resignation of Pierre Trudeau in 1984. In the last eight elections since that resignation (as of 2008), the Liberals have been unable to capture their former position of dominance, despite the selection of Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stéphane Dion (all francophones from Quebec), as the leaders of the Liberal party. As in the case of the XIXth century shift from the Conservative party to the Liberal party, the shift that occurred in the last generation was caused both by factors within the party and outside of it.

    Since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960’s, Quebec has changed a great deal. Nationalism, focused on Quebec, has become more and more prevalent among francophone Quebecers. Demands for the greater autonomy of the province, for the recognition of a distinct society status for Quebec, indeed for independence, have been made. French has been promoted in Quebec. On all of these points, Quebec was on a collision course with the Trudeau conception of Canada. Logically, Quebecers should have turned against the Liberal party long before 1984. However, force of habit was still strong, the alternative was not quite ready, and moreover, Quebecers had never before refused to vote against one “of their own” in federal politics. The irony was that, though Trudeau continously scorned nationalism in Quebec, he was one of the main beneficiaries of it, as his compatriots continued to vote for him, at least in part, because he was "from Quebec".

    From within the Liberal party, two events were to weaken it in Quebec: the first was the patriation of the Constitution by Trudeau in 1982, despite the opposition of the government of the province. As this patriation was made by Trudeau in answer to the promise of renewing Canadian federalism, during the referendum of 1980, this seems especially damaging. Nothing could confront the vision that Quebecers have of themselves as a separate people, equal to and freely associated with their anglophone compatriots in Canada, than the patriation of the constitution without the support of Quebec. Nothing could say more loudly that Quebec was a province just like the others. The repeated attempts made by Trudeau, Chrétien and others, to alter the perception that Quebecers have of this event have had hardly any impact at all. Ever since 1982 they are persona non grata for many Quebecers. The other event that served to confirm the divorce between Quebec and the Liberal party was the Meech Lake Accord. To the extent that the Meech Lake Accord aimed at repairing the mistakes that had been made in the patriation of 1982, to the same extent it was opposed by Trudeau, Chrétien and other Liberals. They were responsible for the demise of the Accord, although other factors no doubt entered into play. The sense of hurt felt in 1982, was repeated in 1990. This is so significant that Quebecers have refused to support Chrétien, the first Prime Minister coming from Quebec who has not been wholeheartedly supported by the province.

    By contrast, ever since the days of Robert Stanfield, the Conservative party had been cultivating the support of the people of Quebec, in the best of the Macdonald tradition. The Conservatives chose a Quebecer, Brian Mulroney, to head their party. He worked hard at getting the First Ministers of Canada to agree to recognise Quebec as a distinct society, and to enshrine in the Meech Lake Accord (and later in the Charlottetown Accord) several traditional constitutional demands of Quebec. Mulroney’s efforts to bring Quebec back into the Canadian fold raised the ire of a segment of English Canada, where Quebec bashing pays political dividends. It made him the target of incessant Liberal attacks, of unfair characterisation, and of strident opposition from English Canadian nationalists who saw in the Free Trade Accord and the Meech Lake Accord the germs of the destruction of Canada. Mulroney’s brazen style did not help matters. However, the strong defence of the interests of Quebec won him significant support in Quebec in the elections of 1984 and 1988. Since the death of Meech Lake, and Mulroney’s retirement, it is the Bloc Québécois that has received the support of Quebec. While the Liberal party has governed Canada between 1993 and 2006, it has done so with relatively little support from Quebec, and virtually only from the areas of the province where the anglophone and the allophone population is significant.

The main characteristics of Quebec’s voting pattern in federal elections.

In analysing the data of Quebec’s voting behaviour in federal elections, four main characteristics stand out: Quebecers have voted as a block, they have usually voted for the winner, they have supported the “favourite son”, and have not supported third parties, except those that have come from Quebec.

In 29 of the 39 elections that have been held since 1867, Quebecers have voted as a block. For the purpose of argument, a block vote is credited whenever at least two thirds of the total seats of Quebec have gone to the same party. A three quarters calculation would not yield substantially different results. While other provinces have frequently divided themselves between two or more parties, Quebec has resisted doing so. The exceptions have been mostly in periods of transition such as in the XIXth century or at the time of the Quiet Revolution. The "group mentality" is very strong in Quebec, so much so that two of the most successful third parties have been called “blocs”: the Bloc Populaire in the 1940’s and the Bloc Québécois in the 1990’s. Two reasons explain the block voting in Quebec: one is the strong sense of community in Quebec, of sharing a common language and culture and, consequently of seeing and appraising events and issues in a similar fashion. The other is the minority position of Quebec: it is a common phenomenon among minorities to foster group consciousness and common action to protect their rights. By definition, a minority lacks political clout and will have even less political power if it divides its votes. Thus in the same way that Blacks in the USA tend to support the Democrats, or that anglophone Quebecers support the Liberal party, Quebecers have voted as a block for the Conservative or Liberal parties in the past.

Also, until the rise of the Bloc Québécois in 1993, in 27 cases out of 34, Quebec supported the winning party. Here, Quebec is not alone as Ontario’s record is nearly as good [23 instances out of 34]. Indeed, there is a dispute as to which comes first. Does Quebec vote for the winner, or does the party that wins Quebec (and Ontario) automatically win the elections by the sheer electoral weight of the province? There is no doubt that if both provinces support the same party, then that party will form the federal government. However, indications were, at least until recently, that there was a desire in Quebec to be part of the federal government. Belief was strong that as a minority, and as a people, Quebecers could not afford to be out of the government. There is little to be gained by a minority in sitting alone in opposition. This was the reason why Quebecers voted for the Conservative party of John Diefenbaker in 1958. Otherwise they had no reason to do so, as one could hardly get farther from the Quebec point of view than John Diefenbaker did.

The third characteristic of Quebec’s voting pattern, and the most evident, is that Quebec votes for the “favourite son”. By favourite son is understood “one of the family”, that is a fellow Quebecer. If two Quebecers are federal party leaders at the same time, then the one that more closely approximates the ideas, or mood, of Quebec will win the vote. In this respect, the performance of the Prime Ministers that have come from Quebec is nothing short of phenomenal. Laurier won 76.9% of the seats from Quebec throughout his career; St. Laurent won 87.1% of the seats from Quebec; Trudeau achieved an 83.2% penetration while Mulroney managed to win 80% of the seats of “la belle province”. Only Chrétien (and later Martin) has failed to live up to the tradition for the reasons raised above but also because he was defeated in the province by Lucien Bouchard of the Bloc Québécois who wore the mantle of “favourite son”. He is the only Quebec leader to have faced another leader from Quebec in a federal election. Thus, political parties that have chosen a Quebecer as their leaders have been very shrewd...

The last characteristic of the Quebec voting pattern is that third parties have not been supported, except if they came from Quebec. Historically, Quebecers have rejected the Progressive Party (1921-1930), the Reconstruction Party (1935), the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (1935-1958), the New Democratic Party (1962 to today), the Reform Party (1993 to 2000) and the Canadian Alliance (2000-2004). Only one seat was ever won by any of these parties federally in Quebec; this was a seat won by the NDP under particular circumstances. By contrast, the Nationalist-conservatives (1911), the Bloc Populaire (1945), the Ralliement Créditiste (1962-1979) and the Bloc Québécois (1993 to today) have had some success. Only the Bloc Québécois has gained the majority of seats in Quebec. Two factors explain the lack of success of some, and the success of the others. Third parties in Canada are usually born in a specific region of the country, and express the views and discontent of that region. Rooted as they are in the problems of a specific area, they have difficulty in winning support in other areas where the situation is not the same. Leaders of third parties from outside of Quebec have rarely been able to speak in French, or to understand the specificity of the people of Quebec. They frequently address the province, claiming to understand the people of Quebec who are deemed to have the same problems as other Canadians, mostly bread and butter issues. While in a general sense this is not untrue, nothing demonstrates the foreign nature of a political leader or party than claims that Quebecers are just the same as other Canadians. They will not win support with such ideas. By contrast, the third parties born in Quebec usually expressed a discontent rooted deeply in the province, were voiced by local heroes in a language that the people of Quebec could understand. Two excellent examples of this were Réal Caouette and Lucien Bouchard. Both had a finger on the collective pulse of Quebec, as did Henri Bourassa in his campaigns against the “imperialism” of Laurier. Yet, until recently, third parties had received little support in the province as Quebecers refused to isolate themselves. This last point touches on the second reason for the lack of success of third parties in Quebec. As long as Quebecers defined themselves as a minority, requiring group solidarity to protect their rights, it also ensured that they would want to find other groups to make alliances so as to solidify these rights. When you are in a minority you are powerless on your own, and you must find political allies to protect yourself. Evidently, in Canada, this was best achieved within a national party. However, at times, there might exist reasons why Quebec would want to give a warning to a governing party. The best way to do so was deemed to be to elect a third party from Quebec. This perspective has only changed lately, as the perception of itself has changed in Quebec. People in Quebec now consider themselves primarily as Quebecers, and as such as a majority. The Bloc Québécois has been the beneficiary of this new vision of life.

Overall, it seems evident that there has been a great deal of rationality behind the voting behaviour of Quebec since Confederation. Those that received the support of the province seemed to deserve it by virtue of the interests of the people of Quebec. Those that were rejected by the people of Quebec did not provide an alternative that was clearly superior. When Quebecers voted for third parties, rarely did it put the Canadian political process in jeopardy. By its voting pattern, the province was certainly an element of stability in Canada. Many consider that it provided the country with some of the best, most creative, and original leaders in Canadian politics.

Bibliographical note: There is a vast array of literature on this subject. Only a few studies are mentioned here for further examination. John Murray BECK, Pendulum of Power. Canada’s Federal Elections., Prentice-Hall, 1968, 442p. is a classic study that paid due attention to Quebec. Richard JONES, Vers une hégémonie libérale. Aperçu de la politique canadienne de Laurier à King, Presses de l’Université Laval, 1980, 256p. updates Beck with a great concentration on Quebec issues. Richard COHEN, Quebec Votes, Montreal, Saje Publication, 1965, 128p. This little book deserved far wider distribution than it received at the time. It was a pioneer on the subject. On the XIXth century, one of the best studies is by Jean HAMELIN, John HUOT and Marcel HAMELIN, " Aperçu sur la politique canadienne au XIXe siècle", in Culture, (June-dec. 1965): 150-189, 303-322, 424-455. This was later published as a small book. The Wikipedia Encyclopedia offers a description of the various federal elections since 1867 and provides much data on the voting behavior of the various provinces. Federal elections' data will also be found in the statistics section of the Quebec History website.

© 2008 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College