The Gaspésie region in eastern Quebec is best known to outsiders for its charming villages, outdoor recreation opportunities and panoramic views of the St. Lawrence River, but it could also become contested territory on election day.
The Gaspesie-Les Iles-de-la-Madeleine riding narrowly remained Liberal in 2019, with Diane Lebouthillier defeating her Bloc Québécois rival by fewer than 700 votes. In just over a decade, the mostly rural riding in the east of the province has been held by the Bloc, the NDP and the Liberals.
As a mark of its importance, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau travelled to the riding in July to make a campaign-style announcement of $25 million to expand a wind turbine plant to produce blades destined for markets in the United States and Europe.
Throughout the day Lebouthillier was by his side, walking with him along Percé’s picturesque boardwalk for a photo, introducing him to local people and taking over the mic from Trudeau at a news conference when questions came on local issues.
In an interview in July, the 62-year-old Lebouthillier was unequivocally confident in her chances of winning a third term, despite the closeness of the vote last time.
The outgoing federal revenue minister said close elections are normal in a riding with such a low population, noting that she’d won her first election — as Reeve of her regional county municipality — by a single vote.
“I’m going to win the next election and I’m going to win it with Madelinots and I’m going to win it with Gaspésiens because they want to continue seeing themselves represented in Ottawa,” she said
Her main challenger is Bloc Québécois candidate Guy Bernatchez, the local mayor and forestry industry executive who she narrowly beat in 2019.
Bernatchez said he's better known and prepared the second time around, being more familiar with the process of recruiting volunteers and working the phones.
“Certainly, I'll be better, I'll be better known. The Bloc is not coming from so far behind, and has done excellent work since 2019,” he said.
Both Lebouthillier and Bernatchez will be expected to address key issues in the riding, which include an aging population, a labour shortage, the need for jobs that go beyond seasonal tourist work or fishing, the threat of climate change-related erosion and need to repair and maintain key infrastructure such as ports.
Recently in Gaspé, citizens expressed mixed opinions.
Marie-Andree Beauchamp, who works seasonally in the hotel industry, says the return of the Bloc Québécois would be “a dream,” but isn’t sure it will happen.
She says the Liberals have made investments in the region, including to fix up Percé’s storm-damaged boardwalk, but feels most of the investments were for tourists, not locals. What locals need, she said, is higher salaries.
A seniors home in Gaspé, about a 45-minute drive away, appeared to be friendlier Liberal territory. Several residents sitting out enjoying the sunshine and river views at Residence Foyer de Gaspé all said they would likely vote Liberal.
One resident had praise for Lebouthillier, who was described as a straight talker. A guest, who was visiting her mother at the home, praised Trudeau’s handling of the pandemic.
“I think he was the only one to really help people,” said Rose-Marie Dorion, as she sat outdoors on a wooden bench.
But Dorion, who works part-time with seniors, said she also believes the benefits have gone on long enough, and that people are now reluctant to work.
Lebouthillier said the Liberal government has invested heavily in the region and has got results.
As an example, she cited Trudeau’s wind power plant announcement as a major investment that will help the region continue to develop as a wind energy power and bring some 200 good-paying jobs to a region where salaries have traditionally been low-paying service and fishing.
In contrast to the Liberals, “The Bloc Québécois can only complain,” she said.
Bernatchez, for his part, acknowledged that Lebouthillier is well-liked in certain circles, but he also believes citizens are disappointed with the Liberals’ lack of action on certain files, ranging from a failure to increase benefits for younger seniors to not restoring the popular Cap-des-Rosiers Lighthouse, which sits next to Forillon National Park.
He rejects Lebouthillier’s argument that the Bloc can’t get anything done because they’ll never be more than an opposition party, noting that the country has several opposition parties that have never formed government.
Also running in the riding are Lisa Phung for the New Democrats, Jean-Pierre Pigeon for the Conservatives and Christian Rioux for the People’s party.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2021.
The Canadian Press