It’s the morning after a landslide victory that no one saw coming, and even over the phone you can hear the ear-to-ear grin on Guillaume Cliche-Rivard’s face.

“In my dreams, I was hoping [to win by] five hundred. Instead, it was almost three thousand [votes]. I can barely believe it.”

The immigration lawyer and refugee advocate who promises to be a “strong voice for inclusion” won a landslide by-election victory last night in the west Montreal riding of Saint-Henri-Saint-Anne. A Liberal stronghold since its creation almost 30 years ago, Liberal leader Dominique Anglade won the riding decisively in last fall’s provincial election. She then resigned from politics following the party’s disappointing showing, triggering the by-election.

Si la tendance se maintient, as they say, the upstart socialists may yet replace the beleaguered Liberals as Quebec’s official opposition.

One of the few polls done in the riding, by Mainstreet, predicted a big Liberal win, as did politico-turned-pundit Tom Mulcair. Instead, Québec solidaire took 45 per cent of the vote to 29 for the Liberals.

Cliche-Rivard is walking as he talks, and our brief conversation is repeatedly interrupted by well-wishers stopping to congratulate him — in both languages. One-third of voters in the riding speak English at home, and their support was key to this win.

The victory gives Québec solidaire an even dozen seats in the national assembly, a high water mark for the leftist (and sovereigntist) party. That’s enough to gain official party status in Quebec’s National Assembly, a victory for the party over and above the seat gained (The party had previously negotiated to receive some, but not all, of the benefits of party status).

QS were already the third largest party in the legislature, and have now drawn to within seven seats of the Quebec Liberal Party. Si la tendance se maintient, as they say, the upstart socialists may yet replace the beleaguered Liberals as Quebec’s official opposition.

Going back to last fall’s election, the last three seats gained by the party have come in Montreal ridings with significant anglophone, allophone, immigrant and visible minority populations, signalling a shift in how the party is perceived in those communities.

Meanwhile, the by-election loss has the Quebec Liberal party once again engaged in some bleak soul searching. On Twitter, polling analyst Philippe J. Fournier speculated that the party would continue to exist, but its days of being a political force were over. It was “cooked.” Writing in the Montreal Gazette, Mulcair argued the Liberals just need better leadership. Perhaps he’s auditioning for the job?

A voice for those without status

“I’m going to push so hard for measures to help people pay their rent. Build more social housing, more affordable housing — more housing period. Things are very hard in the southwest. The evictions, the rent increases, the cost of living crisis is a day to day battle that we need to fight, and push the CAQ on.”

Cliche-Rivard notes the strength of his campaign’s ground game, his deep roots in the riding and the absence of the well-respected Anglade when asked to explain his win. But most of all, he emphasises, “people wanted a strong voice for inclusion.”

“I spoke often about people without status during this campaign, and I want to start having a much more inclusive and positive dialogue around immigration.

I want everyone to feel respected, and everyone to feel they’re part of the same Quebec. We need to stop playing wedge politics and dividing people. There are humongous challenges we need to tackle together, and to do that we need to stop being divisive, and stop playing the game the government is playing now.”

Although Québec solidaire has come out clearly against Bill 21 and other discriminatory measures targeting those who wear visible religious symbols, they can still be goaded into identitarian positions by the Parti Québécois — as they were earlier this year when they called for federal Islamophobia representative Amira Elghawaby’s resignation.

“Step by step, the left-right realignment continues in Quebec.”

That makes the addition of voices to caucus who will push back, voices like Cliche-Rivard, particularly important. Calling for Elghawaby’s resignation wasn’t just wrong on principle, it was a strategic clusterfuck that angered the party’s supporters and pleased its enemies.

In trying to split the baby, co-leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said they wanted to talk to Elghawaby about her past statements, but decided to call for her resignation when she didn’t agree to meet with them until she had officially started in her new role. Rather than a principled decision in either direction, they made their mind up based on a fit of pique and hurt feelings? What a mess.

If I sound confident that Cliche-Rivard has the requisite backbone to stand up to party leaders and arguments of expediency, it’s because I’ve known him for years.

I’m a director at For the Refugees, a non-profit refugee sponsor working to bring the Snowden refugees to Canada, and for the past several years Guillaume has volunteered as our lead litigator. He has fearlessly confronted the federal government in court, and invested endless unpaid hours fighting for those with nowhere else to turn.

As head of the Quebec association of immigration lawyers, he has doggedly taken the Legault government to task for their backwards and harmful immigration reforms. And as a lawyer he represented Mamadi Camara, a Black PhD student who was wrongfully arrested and detained for six days by Montreal police, helping him secure a six-figure settlement.

Politics has a way of melting backbones, so we’ll see what comes, but Cliche-Rivard enters the arena with a strong one.

A political transformation in slow motion

“Step by step,” wrote Fournier on Twitter, “the left-right realignment continues in Quebec.”

Pundits like Mulcair write off QS as an urban party, and their dozen seats are concentrated in the province’s three largest cities, but their ability to bring together francophones and anglophones on both sides of the sovereignty debate speaks well to their ability to unite leftist voters across the province in years to come.

When I went to vote on Monday I crossed paths with a CBC journalist I know who was interviewing voters as they left the polling station. In the heart of Saint Henri he told me he was talking to a lot of young anglophone professionals — and they were overwhelmingly there to vote for QS. Some told him they had voted Liberal in last fall’s election, but had now switched to backing Cliche-Rivard.

Over the years, QS has expanded out from their base on the Plateau Mont-Royal at the eastern edge of Montreal’s downtown, spreading north, south and east. But prior to last fall’s election they had yet to win a seat west of Saint Laurent Boulevard.

it’s clear that federalists aren’t scared off by the spectre of sovereignty — so long as it isn’t accompanied by the xenophobia and intolerance of a party like the PQ.

That changed last fall when Alejandra Zaga-Mendez won a tight race in Verdun, and with yesterday’s win in neighbouring Saint Henri the entire southwest district of Montreal is now represented by solidaires. In both ridings anglophones and allophones make up over a third of the population, while over a quarter of residents identify as visible minorities.

The party’s other gain in last fall’s election was Haroun Bouazzi’s win in the north Montreal riding of Maurice-Richard, where over a third of residents identify as visible minorities.

Although QS is an unabashedly sovereigntist party, it is often pilloried by the PQ as a purveyor of independence-light. They argue sovereignty takes a back seat among the party’s cadres to concrete policies that would improve people’s lives. For some sovereigntists, independence is a means to an end. A way to build a better future, faster. For others, it’s more like a religious calling. A big tent identity divorced from any real world impact or ideology.

But with polls showing a slim majority of the party’s supporters actually oppose sovereignty, it’s clear that federalists aren’t scared off by the spectre of sovereignty — so long as it isn’t accompanied by the xenophobia and intolerance of a party like the PQ.

It’s an internal tension that will eventually lead to a reckoning, but as the only party other than the governing CAQ able to reach voters on both sides of the issue, QS can access the full electorate rather than being constrained to one silo or the other.

With the PQ and Liberals both seeming like spent forces that have lost the trust of the population, the question becomes who can oppose the CAQ juggernaut, and offer a genuinely different vision of the future.

If QS can’t live up to that task, we’re in for a lot more of the same old.