A byelection date has now been set for two Quebec ridings. Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Saturday that voters in the Outremont and Saint-Hyacinthe ridings will go to the polls Sept. 17.

The battle for Outremont is already off to a heated start as candidates have been anxiously poised to start the byelection race. Political parties have been pushing their star candidates in the spotlight in anticipation of the announcement.

Outremont is being watched closely because of its roots as a Liberal stronghold. If the seat should go to another party, political pundits warn it would cast doubts on Stephane Dion's effectiveness as leader of the opposition.

"This time around, both the Conservative party and the NDP have strong candidates, so it's really a multi-party contest in Outremont," said David Mitchell, political historian and vice-president of the University of Ottawa.

"It could be very devastating for the leadership of Stephane Dion if the Liberals don't easily win the Outremont byelection."

On July 20, the Liberals announced their candidate in Outremont as Jocelyn Coulon, a long-time political commentator and professor. He will duke it out with NDP candidate Thomas Mulcair, a former Quebec environment minister, Conservative candidate former ambassador Gilles Duguay, and Bloc Qu�b�cois candidate psychoanalyst Jean-Paul Gilson.

"Byelections are difficult to predict," said Mitchell. "They're kind of mini-referenda on how the government is doing. Governments, historically, in Canada don't do well in a byelection."

Candidates spark controversy

The Liberal announcement was not without controversy. B'nai Brith, a lobby group focusing on Jewish issues, condemned the nomination.

"Mr. Coulon has expressed views on Israel and the Middle East that appear out of step with current Liberal policy," said Mo�se Moghrabi, the organization's lawyer in the Quebec region. "His hostile attitude toward Israel, his anti-U.S. rhetoric and his calls to end the isolation of a government controlled by Hamas, a terrorist group banned in Canada, ought to disqualify him as a candidate for the Liberal Party."

Nonetheless, Dion is sticking by his choice. In a statement issued to the media on the day he announced Coulon's nomination, Dion said the noted journalist "will help establish Canada's role in the world.

"At a time when Canada's foreign policy is headed in the wrong direction because of the current Conservative government's Republican-style approach, I am confident the people of Outremont will be proud to elect Jocelyn Coulon," he said. "In addition to....his knowledge of local issues, they will also recognize the role that Mr. Coulon will play in helping to re-establish Canada's role in the world."

The main contender to Coulon seems to be NDP's Mulcair. He's a former provincial Liberal and lawyer by profession. He left the party after clashing with Premier Jean Charest over environmental protection policy.

"Support for the NDP tripled in Quebec during the last federal election and Quebeckers' support for our ideas and our values is constantly growing," party leader Jack Layton said in a press release. "The fact that Thomas Mulcair has joined our team reinforces this momentum and we are optimistic that other candidates of his caliber will join us."

Duguay is also a lawyer, a professor and a Rhodes Scholar. He has worked for the Foreign Affairs department since 1967. He said he is running to uphold Harper's motion to recognize Quebec as a nation and to promote the province's role at the UNESCO.

Pierre Paquette, house leader for the Bloc, said he is confidant their candidate will stand up for sovereignty and will speak out against the Conservatives' Afghanistan mission, fiscal imbalance and environmental policies.

Outremont was vacated back in January when former Liberal cabinet minister Jean Lapierre decided to retire. The seat has piqued the interest of key political players since then, including Justin Trudeau, son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. He has since decided to run in the Papineau riding.

The other races

Only one candidate has been announced for Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot. The Bloc announced Eve-Mary Thai Thi Lac, an immigration specialist, will be their candidate. The riding is considered a Bloc stronghold

A third byelection is also expected to be called Sept. 17 for the Quebec riding of Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, where the Tories expect to make the most gains. They've recruited Roberval mayor Denis Lebel to be their candidate.

All three ridings are currently held by opposition parties but last year's elections show the Conservatives shouldn't be discredited.

In the 2006 federal election Conservatives won 10 seats in Quebec. Winning votes in the province has been a major focus of Harper's government, hoping to outgrow its minority status.

The Conservatives currently have about 30 per cent support nationwide according to recent public opinion polls.

There are four other ridings across Canada where byelections still need to be called. Two of them are in Toronto, one is in Saskatchewan and the other is in British Columbia.

One Liberal MP said Harper is dragging his feet on calling for those elections for political reasons.

"It is obvious that this Prime Minister is afraid of the voters," said Hull MP Aylmer Marcel Proulx. "He's broken so many promises, raised taxes on the lowest income Canadians, and has completely abdicated his leadership while our soldiers are serving in Afghanistan.

"Its no wonder he wants to delay as many by-elections as possible, but the voters in Toronto and Vancouver deserve to have their voices heard in Parliament, even if those voices aren't very friendly to this Prime Minister."

He said that will likely leave the open ridings with no representation for six months.