Quebec farmers talk corn, Conservatives

If election posters could vote, there wouldn't be much of a contest in this part of Quebec. Posters in all sizes and shapes touting the Progressive Conservatives and their candidates are everywhere - on the roadside, on telephone polls, on building walls, and even on the sides of churches. They virtually obscure the signs for all other candidates.

But so far, the people of Sabrevois aren't committing themselves in a bitter campaign for the parliamentary seat now held by Liberal Paul-Andre Masse. He is being challenged by Progressive Conservative Andre Bissonette.

And it looks as though the district may elect Mr. Bissonette in the Sept. 4 election. That, in turn, would help Quebec-born Brian Mulroney, the Conservative leader, win Canada's prime ministership. There have been no formal polls here, but a day-long visit with residents suggests that Tory candidate Bissonette has a slight edge.

''It is the closest race we've seen in a long time,'' says Henri Girard, whose 110-acre corn and vegetable farm is located six miles south of this highway junction. ''The Conservatives have a real chance. They could carry the riding (district), but this has been a Liberal stronghold for years, and they are doing what they can to hold onto the seat.''

Most people in the district, St. Jean, seem to agree with his assessment that the vote here will be close. The region, halfway between Montreal and the United States border, is rich agricultural land. Trim silos dot the horizon in every direction.

Tall cornstalks line Highway 133 like sentinels as it cuts a swath through the farms and past manicured lawns with swimming pools.

This is a busy season on the farms. Some farmers complain that the election could not have come at a more difficult time for them.

''There's no time to look at the candidates carefully,'' says Leopoldo Fortier, who has 50 acres in corn, about 75 dairy cows which supply milk to Montreal dairies, and a roadside stand where weekending Montrealers regularly stop to purchase fruits and vegetables - particularly the sweet corn.

Anatole David, who with his wife runs the town's souvenir shop, says he worries about both the Liberals and the Conservatives. ''They both favor Bill 101 (the Quebec legislation that not only makes French the official language of the province, but at the same time requires all signs to be in French). I don't think that is right. I'm likely to vote NDP (National Democratic Party).'' The local NDP candidate, Todd Sloan, is not expected to poll much more than 10 percent of the vote.

Few people here give much attention to Bill 101, however. The vast majority of residents are French-speaking Quebeckers, with a sprinkling, perhaps 15 to 20 percent, of people of English stock. The language most people use is French, but virtually everyone speaks English as well.

In Marche Dorval, the general store at the junction of highways 133 and 225, the French is peppered with English words. Go next door to Guillet & Freres, Inc., the local distributor of Massey-Ferguson, the Canadian farm machinery firm , and the talk is a mixture of English and French.

The three candidates - Masse, Bissonette, and Sloan - have all been in Sabrevois. Each hopes to score well in this area. Devoted Liberals and Conservatives, on a 2-to-1 ratio, will certainly vote their candidate. But they make up only about half the electorate in the St. Jean riding, according to officials of all three parties. It is the other half who will swing the election.

The three candidates are vying for this ''swing vote.'' There is virtually no chance Sloan can win, but if he pulls 10 to 20 percent of the vote, he could assure a Conservative win because he is likely to draw votes from people who would ordinarily vote Liberal.

Paul Coburn, a farmhand who picks apples at this season, said that in the past he has ''voted for Liberals at least five times, maybe four times for the Conservatives, and I don't know which one I'll choose this time. I suppose I lean Conservative partly because the Liberals have been in power for a long time.''

Antoinette Balbin agrees. ''It is time for a change,'' she says. A waitress at the Maurice Inn up the road from Sabrevois, she is also disturbed by Liberal Prime Minister John Turner's ''patting of women,'' as she refers to his much-reported gaffes early in the campaign. Just how badly this issue has hurt Mr. Turner and his party's candidates remains to be seen.

But at this season, it is the region's succulent sweet corn that dominates much of the conversation.

''Just sink your teeth into an ear of our corn. You'll always want Sabrevois corn,'' Antoinette says. ''City people come on weekends in the late summer or early fall for our corn. They keep coming back.''

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