'Underdog' Lisee looks to pull off upset in Quebec provincial election
PQ leader Jean-Francois Lisee addresses supporters during a campaign stop in Chambly, Que. on Friday, August 24, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, August 24, 2018 3:52PM EDT
MONTREAL -- Jean-Francois Lisee invokes two sources of inspiration when asked about his chances of winning the Quebec election: late sovereigntist premier Rene Levesque, and a caped, cartoon dog.
The Parti Quebecois leader recently posted a short clip of the 1960s show called "Underdog," on his Facebook page, accompanied by a message.
"Just a warning: Underdog always triumphs!" wrote Lisee, referring to the show's theme song.
Lisee, 60, has made it clear he's unfazed by polls that place his party firmly in third place, well behind the governing Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Quebec.
He points out that Levesque, a hero to the province's sovereigntists, was not orginally favoured to win the Quebec election in 1976.
And Lisee also mentions he was not expected to win the party's leadership race in 2016, when he overtook early favourite Alexandre Cloutier with a campaign that focused on identity and immigration issues and a promise to not hold a sovereignty referendum in his first mandate as premier.
First elected in 2012, Lisee was the cabinet minister responsible for international relations and the Montreal region in the Pauline Marois government.
He was re-elected in 2014, when the PQ managed to win only 30 of the province's 125 ridings.
Since taking over his party's top spot, the one-time adviser to Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard has shown he's not afraid to make controversial statements, even if they occasionally backfire.
In 2017, his party introduced a symbolic motion in the legislature calling on merchants to greet customers with a simple "bonjour," instead of the bilingual "bonjour-hi" that has become customary in Montreal.
When its unanimous adoption caused widespread outrage among the English-speaking community, much of it directed at Premier Philippe Couillard, Lisee openly bragged he'd set "the oldest trap in the book" to make the Liberals look weak on language.
"I simply showed, (for) everyone to see, that when they pretend to further French, it's a facade," he said. "So I think I rendered a service to everyone, in French and English Canada to say, 'Look at these guys. They don't really mean it."'
However, earlier this year Lisee was forced to revise his own words after saying he wanted a fence built near a Quebec-New York border crossing that is popular with asylum seekers.
He later nuanced his comment by saying he actually meant the road should be blocked off with a sign, a hedge, or a small fence similar to the type found in schools.
But while Lisee may be on familiar territory when it comes to his underdog status, his promise to not hold a referendum until at least 2022 if he wins the Oct.1 election puts his party into uncharted waters.
His decision means that for the first time in 50 years, Quebecers will experience an election campaign where the choice between federalism and sovereignty is unlikely to be the major issue.
Instead, Lisee is banking on his party's left-of-centre platform, which includes promises to reinvest in health and education rather than tax cuts or austerity.
Some federalist voters do appear to be ready to consider options beyond the Liberals they've long favoured -- but so far, that has been to the advantage of the Coalition rather than Lisee's party.
But a recent poll also suggests that 45 per cent of voters are undecided -- meaning any party can still win.
Lisee faces several challenges in the campaign -- including a stiff one in his own Montreal riding of Rosemont, where polls suggest he's in a tight race with Quebec solidaire candidate Vincent Marissal, and Coalition candidate Sonya Cormier.
But perhaps his greatest challenge is luring voters back to his party -- especially young ones who appear less interested in sovereignty and the language and identity politics that appeal to some members of the party's older base.
In a recent event at Concordia University, Lisee made his pitch, saying the PQ is the party with the most young voters, and expressing his belief they would eventually carry the province to sovereignty.
"Why is the Parti Quebecois the party of youth? Because we carry the idea of a new country," he said.
"A new country, the youngest country in the world, the day after Quebec's independence, that will be Quebec."