Quebec, the Liberals, the NDP, and ISIS
The position taken by the New Democratic Party on Canadian airstrikes against ISIS on October 6 and 7 is surely no surprise. The NDP, no matter its leader, no matter the war, has always been very cool to any military action other than peacekeeping of the most benign kind. The party also has resisted calls to spend public money on the Canadian Forces. The Justin Trudeau Liberal Party position was also not much of a surprise, though its incoherence was perhaps a reflection of Trudeau’s lack of familiarity with foreign and defence policy. What was unusual this time was that two Liberal grandees, Lloyd Axworthy and Bob Rae, neither known in the past for being remotely hawkish, disagreed with Mr Trudeau and his caucus and supported Canadian military involvement against ISIS.
But what is really at stake in this issue for the NDP and the Grits is Quebec. With a federal election at most a year away, with the NDP presently holding 55 seats and the Liberals 8 of the province’s 75 seats, much rests on the attitudes and voting intentions of Quebeckers. A recent Leger poll (taken from 22 to 25 September) had the Liberals leading the NDP in Quebec 39 percent to 29 among all voters. Among francophone voters, however, the NDP had a slim 32 to 30 percent lead. In other words, the francophone electorate remains very much in play.
This explains the Liberal and NDP positions on the ISIS question. Both leaders understand Quebec’s attitudes to the military and the use of force in international relations. Quebec public opinion was against Canadian involvement in the South African War in 1899, even with the French Canadian Sir Wilfrid Laurier as prime minister, and it was very cool to anything but voluntary enlistment for overseas service in the Great War and in the Second World War. In both world wars, conscription tore apart Canada’s federal political parties, and it took strong prime ministerial leadership from Louis St Laurent to get the acquiescence of his compatriots to Canadian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949.
And while francophones have supported benign blue beret United Nations peacekeeping on every occasion, they have continued to be ice cold on war fighting. Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s famous rejection of the war in Iraq in 2003 was prompted less by opposition to George W. Bush’s war than it was by the fact that a provincial election was underway in Quebec. With all the party leaders in a televised debate sporting anti-war ribbons, Chretien almost certainly took the position he did to help the Quebec Liberals beat the Parti Quebecois, as they did. Chretien’s commitment to the Afghan War, not looked on any more favourably in Quebec, however, seemed to do him little harm, although Stephen Harper’s more fervent support almost certainly hurt Conservative candidates in Quebec in the three elections he won without much help from francophone voters
Thus the parliamentary manoeuvres around the ISIS vote. The Tories are for war, the NDP is opposed, and the Liberals are for the war so long as Canadians don’t fight in it. Mr Mulcair’s position that Canada should only contribute humanitarian aid and a transport aircraft or two probably has more resonance with francophones. It will likely do him little good with anglophones in Quebec and in most areas outside the province. Mr Trudeau’s stand for all aid short of real help to oppose ISIS might assist some of his candidates in English-speaking and heavily ethnic ridings in Quebec, and just might sell in some Ontario constituencies; it is unlikely to gain him any more support among French-speaking voters. The Harper government position is, to my mind, the responsible one, the only one that reflects Canada’s international responsibilities, alliances, and capabilities. But it likely appeals only to the Conservative base. Certainly, the government position will find little support among Quebec’s francophone voters.
As the conflict in Iraq and Syria—and possibly in Jordan and Turkey in the near future—plays out in the coming months, the government’s stance on the extent of Canadian involvement might alter. But the NDP and Liberal positions, while they might change slightly, will remain fixated on the Quebec electorate. That is where their fate will be determined.
Historian J.L. Granatstein is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.