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Dominique Anglade undaunted: 'I never shy away from a challenge' – Montreal Gazette

Quebec Liberal leader acknowledges the uphill battle to win over Quebecers this election. But her whole life has primed her for this fight.
As the head of a Liberal Party trailing badly in the polls, Dominique Anglade has an arduous, some would say insurmountable, hill to climb.

Anglade seems unfazed. The child of Haitian intellectuals descended from a long line of politicians, she spent her formative teenage years there, learning the true worth of democracy. At 17 she set out on her own, returning to Montreal to study engineering. A few years later she was voted president of student council at Polytechnique Montréal, the Université de Montréal’s engineering school, responsible for 3,000 students, six vice-presidents and a staff of three.
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She forged a business career, joined and then very publicly rejected François Legault’s fledgling Coalition Avenir Québec party, then became a Liberal cabinet minister and finally chef du parti, the first woman and person of colour to do so in the party’s 150-year history. Amid this rapid rise she also married, gave birth to three girls, and lost her parents to the Haitian earthquake of 2010.

In Haiti, a country criss-crossed by ranges and a long history of challenges, there’s an expression: Beyond mountains, more mountains.

“I knew it was going to be tough,” she said of taking on the leadership in 2020. “But politics is about doing tough things. And about making tough changes,” Anglade, 48, said in a sit-down interview with the Montreal Gazette during the provincial election campaign.

“But I never shy away from a challenge.”

As the former deputy premier, and minister of the economy, she was a natural fit for leader, said Université Laval political analyst Eric Montigny. Potential opponents included high-profile MNAs Marwah Rizqy, Marie Montpetit and Gaétan Barrette, but none of them stepped up.

First elected in 2015 in the Montreal riding of Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne, she also represented a break from the old Liberals of the Jean Charest era tainted by the waft of corruption allegations.

“She’s a young leader, with experience, and she represents a new way of doing politics, in a new generation of politicians,” said Charles Robert, a longtime Liberal Party strategist running to be MNA in Jean-Lesage riding near Quebec City. “I think she’s a woman who is ultra-empathetic, very, very intelligent. What I love about Dominique is that she is very grounded — she’s able to bring together the daily realities of people and the big picture challenges of the province.”

Her low ratings — only 14 per cent said she would make the best opposition leader — are due mainly to the all-encompassing battle against the pandemic, which gave Legault centre stage and didn’t allow opposition leaders any visibility, Robert said.

“The election campaign will be the chance for people to discover Dominique Anglade,” he said.

She’d better hurry, said André Lamoureux, political science professor at the Université du Québec à Montreal. Polls indicate fewer than one in 10 francophone Quebecers intend to vote Liberal.

“There is the possibility of a total collapse for the Liberal Party right now,” he said. “It’s a bad surprise for Mme. Anglade.”

Anglade grew up in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce in Montreal, on N.D.G. Ave. between Marlowe and Northcliffe Aves. She recalls a happy childhood with her younger sister, Pascal (now a gastroenterologist working in Abu Dhabi). Both her parents left Haiti in their early 20s to study in Europe, her father completing his PhD in geography in four years. Her mother, Mireille, would attain her PhD years later while raising two girls. Anglade remembers her hosting feminist-themed evenings at their home, informing women of their rights and how to fight for them.

Her parents emigrated to Quebec in 1969. Her father, Georges Anglade, would become one of the founders of the Université du Québec à Montreal, teaching there for 32 years.

The family went to Haiti in 1988 after the fall of the Duvalier regime to fulfil her parents’ longing to rebuild their country. Anglade was 14, and remembers traversing the country by car and foot, to speak to the people in their homes as part of her parents’ social work.

“Her parents were exceptionally involved in their communities, it was part of their lifestyle, and Anglade and her sister learned that,” said Violette Alarie, a longtime family friend.

“Even at that age, Dominique was brilliant. But not only that, she was organized, which is important, because you can have vision, but not be able to manage that vision.”

Haiti taught her many things, Anglade said.

“You understand what it means not to have a democracy, not being able to vote. The frustration of people saying we want justice or we want food, we want to have a future,” she said. “The fundamental questions are what I took away from Haiti.”

The example of her parents has remained her leading force, she said.

“Because they were very engaged. My mom was a feminist, she worked a lot with women, vulnerable women. So it was a family of values. When you can make a difference in the lives of others, you do it. If you can get involved, you do it. This is something I took away from my parents.

“They live with me on a daily basis.”

At 16, Anglade had already plotted out her trajectory, she recounts in her 2021 autobiography, titled Dominique Anglade: Ce Québec qui m’habite. She left Haiti on her own to attend Polytechnique, followed by work as an organizational manager at Proctor and Gamble in Belleville, Ont., where as a young French female of colour, she was “four times a minority.” In getting to know her colleagues and employees there, she learned the secret of connection that serves her on the campaign trail, where she is a natural glad-hander and well-received by the public: take the time to listen, share your experiences, be truthful.

Along the way, she met her husband to be, Helge Seetzen, a German student working toward his PhD in physics who is now the CEO of his own firm. They have three girls, age 15, 13 and 10.

In 2010 her parents, travelling to Haiti to see family, were killed in the earthquake, along with her uncle and cousin. Childhood sweethearts since 17, they were found in the rubble, holding hands. Anglade grieved, and grieves still. But in the same year, she launched KANPE, which means Stand Up, to support poor Haitians.

In 2012 she joined the Coalition Avenir Québec, intrigued by a new formation with new ideas, and was named president. She quit the party a year later, saying she was fundamentally opposed to the party’s stance on identity issues and immigration. After two years as CEO of business development agency Montréal International, she ran for the Liberals, became economy minister, then leader.

Then she ran into trouble.

“She promised to be the leader of all Quebecers, but I would add: ‘With the exception of the Quebec nation,’” said Lamoureux. She failed to focus on the issues of self-determination important to Quebecers today, he said, including protecting French, promoting secularism, controlling immigration and limiting federal intervention. Legault was quick to do so, and also to focus on the economy, once considered the Liberals’ bailiwick.

Anglade’s nationalist efforts, particularly the party’s suggestion to increase mandatory French courses for English CEGEP students, alienated much of the party’s anglophone voter base. The Liberals tried to switch course, but the damage was done, with many anglophones saying they’ve lost faith in the party’s dedication to protect minority groups. A Léger poll commissioned by the Montreal Gazette shows support for the Liberal Party has dropped to 28 per cent in Montreal and Laval, down from 41 per cent in 2018. It’s not certain Anglade will win her own seat.

The meltdown is not Anglade’s fault, Montigny said. The dissolution of the independence debate that fueled the Parti Québécois and the Liberals for decades brought the end of the anti-sovereignist vote for the Liberals.

“In the past they did not have to think about defining themselves beyond this,” Montigny said. “And if the PQ is doing badly, it’s inevitable the Liberal Party will do less well as well. … It’s a party that is looking for itself.”

Anglade is “a bit stuck between opening up to the francophones, and her anglophone base,” he said.

The question becomes, how many seats can the Liberals, who had 27 of 125 ridings when the election was called, retain? Lamoureux is predicting a historic slide, one he says Anglade will not survive politically. A strong orator, she has a chance to rebound somewhat off her debate skills, he said.

Whatever the outcome, Anglade says the battle is worth it, particularly against a leader she says is purposefully attempting to divide Quebecers along linguistic, regional and racial lines.  She has spoken forcefully against Legault’s recent anti-immigration pronouncements.

“It is my profound belief that the Liberal Party has a lot to give to Quebec,” she said. “Yes, we had to make some changes, we had to renew the party and reconnect with people. … We represent the whole question of combining fighting climate change and the economy, and a vision for society that unites people.

“I never regretted once since 2015 entering politics, because it’s about building our collective future.”

It’s not the first time Anglade has found herself on a steep hill.

“Yes, that’s true,” family friend Alarie agreed. “But she is young.”

rbruemmer@postmedia.com

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