Standing unassumingly in front of a Montreal business audience enjoying its catered lunch, Éric Duhaime did not look like someone who had recently been called a merchant of hate, or who had been required to clarify that he didn’t think the past U.S. election was stolen.
With his chunky glasses, sloped shoulders, soft voice and glum expression, the leader of the up-and-coming Conservative Party of Quebec looks more like an overworked librarian than the irresponsible extremist his opponents describe.
Yet it is Mr. Duhaime, a former talk-radio host, who has benefited more than anyone from the province’s tide of anger and paranoia about public-health restrictions, standing alone among party leaders in opposing mask mandates and vaccine requirements while accusing Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault of putting “democracy on pause” during the pandemic.
That anger, and that response, has made him Quebec’s breakout political star this year, sitting second in some polls behind only the dominant governing CAQ and earning his party, among other benefits, its first-ever invitation to address the Montreal Chamber of Commerce.
His speech there earlier this month illustrated how Mr. Duhaime’s fiery words and mild manner have brought the province’s Conservatives – who have no affiliation with their federal namesake – out of obscurity and into the mainstream.
He repeated his support for the anti-vaccine trucker convoy that paralyzed Ottawa this winter, called CAQ spending plans “odious,” and defended his party’s lack of greenhouse-gas reduction targets while calling for Quebec to exploit its oil and gas reserves.
He introduced the audience to his partner, fashion designer François Beauregard. Mr. Duhaime likes to say that he is “fiscally conservative, not morally conservative.”
He also repeated his frequent boast that the Conservative Party of Quebec has gone from 500 members to 60,000 in the past two years – a remarkable feat for a once-moribund political brand.
“We could be arriving at a completely new political reality in Quebec. I invite you to sign up for that new reality,” Mr. Duhaime said. “I’m just the spokesperson for something that goes beyond me.”
The “something” he is channelling begins a long way from the glass towers and sleek suits of downtown Montreal – in the suburbs and rural hinterland of Quebec City. It was in the capital region that Mr. Duhaime built his career on the airwaves and it’s there that his party hopes to break through in several close races.
Quebec City is a paradox: a government town that is much more conservative than the society it governs. It is a reliable source of seats for right-leaning provincial parties as well as for the federal Conservatives, from Stephen Harper through Erin O’Toole.
Former long-time mayor Régis Labeaume says the quirk of a government town voting against public spending goes back to an old social divide within the city. The lawyers, notaries and accountants who benefited from government work formed a close-knit elite that lived in the Haute-Ville, literally looking down on working-class residents of the Basse-Ville.
“The bourgeoisie was very pretentious, very pretentious; it was almost a caste system,” Mr. Labeaume said. “I know what it’s like to be a son of a mechanic and resent the bourgeoisie of the Haute-Ville.”
In the 1970s, a radio host named André Arthur began to express some of that resentment, pioneering a coarse, anti-establishment style that came to be known by critics as radio poubelle, or trash radio. By then, many lower-city families had moved to bungalows in the rapidly expanding suburbs, spreading that style of politics to the wider region.
“He fought against the system. He won people’s hearts,” said Mr. Labeaume, who became a frequent target of Mr. Arthur and his imitators. “Socio-culturally, it’s the reaction of the plebs.”
Mr. Duhaime, 53, entered this world of right-wing media and politics through an epiphany in university, he says, when he decided that governments were “mortgaging” his generation’s future to pay for overly generous social programs. The books he went on to write, The State Against Young People and Free Us From the Unions!, reflect his long-standing libertarian bent.
“The issue that preoccupied me above all was intergenerational equity,” he said in a recent interview. “I realized there was going to be a generation that was going to be poorer than its parents.”
After working as an adviser for conservative and nationalist politicians across the country, from Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day to the Bloc Québécois’s Gilles Duceppe, he was hired in 2012 as a host by Montreal’s Radio X, before moving to a noon-hour talk show in Quebec City. Broadcasting live for three or four hours a day honed his political skills, gave him an influential platform, and brought him into intimate contact with public opinion in the provincial capital.
“Radio gave me my ease of communication,” he said. “It gave me the pulse of the population.”
It also let him express views that many found offensive. When he said the Black community lacks impressive leaders (“When they have heroes, often it seems they turn out to be zeros”) it sparked outrage among Black Quebeckers. In a 2016 discussion about rape culture, he compared sexual assault with car theft and noted that insurance companies will hold the driver responsible if they haven’t locked their doors.
One of his former co-hosts, the onetime Parti Québécois cabinet minister and current CAQ candidate Bernard Drainville, said that exchanges about the size of the state with Mr. Duhaime, a conservative true-believer, could be brutally intense.
“The clashes were violent almost,” said Mr. Drainville, who now considers his old colleague a friend. “Sometimes at break there were pauses and there wouldn’t be a word exchanged.”
One of Mr. Duhaime’s lighter bits was a running gag about how he hadn’t paid his Hydro-Québec bill, a flight of self-deprecation that turned serious during the campaign. In early September, several media outlets revealed that Mr. Duhaime owed Quebec City roughly $16,000 in unpaid property and school taxes. After days of controversy, he blamed a friend who had been staying at one of his properties in exchange for tax payments that the man had failed to make.
So far, the scandal does not seem to have dented his party’s poll numbers: A Mainstreet Research survey carried out after the tax stories – with a sample of 1,192 and a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.8 percentage points – placed the Conservatives in a comfortable second place, with 19 per cent.
It remains unclear whether that tide of support will translate into seats. The party only had one before the election – a floor-crosser who was expelled from the CAQ for donating to the Conservatives. With a partisan landscape splintered between five competitive parties and a first-past-the-post system, it’s possible that Mr. Duhaime and company will still be shut out on Oct. 3.
Liette Bélanger is more optimistic. The retired pharmaceutical industry worker was attending an event in support of Conservative candidate Stéphane Lachance at a bar in the Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier one recent evening.
Like Mr. Duhaime, she believed that Quebec is no longer a democratic society, thanks in part to the government’s aggressive pandemic response.
“We live in a dictatorship,” she said. “It’s a hidden dictatorship, a modern dictatorship, a dictatorship of the media.”
But Ms. Bélanger, who has refused the COVID-19 vaccine, believes Mr. Duhaime and his message of freedom – to extract oil, pay less tax, or go unvaccinated – represents hope.
“Something is really happening,” she said. “The crowds are with Éric.”