On paper, Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre has everything he needs to win in Quebec. He has the right name, a trilingual Quebecoise-Latina wife with a compelling story (and oratory superpowers), he speaks French and, off the cuff, knows the right gender to employ when going off-script to declare "Long Live the Quebec Nation" (it’s feminine), as he did during his speech to the Conservative convention.
The Conservatives need to build support in Quebec for a comfortable road to a majority government, and Poilievre has more of the necessary ingredients to achieve this than did Erin O’Toole, Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper combined. The party’s decision to host their national convention in Quebec City was smart: Delegates were enthralled with the city, with most of those I spoke to having either never been to Quebec City before, or having warm memories of visiting the city on a school trip.
If all the pieces are there, then why hasn’t Poilievre been able to make gains in the province?
The Conservatives’ popularity in Quebec has hovered at around 20 per cent since January 2022, according to the poll aggregator website 338Canada. The Bloc and the Liberals are virtually tied in the low 30s.
The Conservatives only won 10 seats in Quebec at the last election. Indeed, the hangover many Quebecers still have after Stephen Harper has not gone away.
It will take more than aesthetics for the Conservatives to convince Quebecers to vote for them. The party is too far away from where Quebecers are at for the party to have an easy road to victory, especially on social questions and climate change.
Take abortion, for example. Opinion favouring access to abortion remains higher in Quebec than in any other province (it’s the lowest in freedom-for-men-loving Alberta). That poses a problem for a party that needs to keep the anti-choice movement under its big tent to help them mobilize voters in churches and community centres in conservative areas of Canada.
The same problem exists for Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID). It wasn’t by accident that every speaker against a motion debated at the Conservative convention to oppose expanded MAID was from Quebec.
The party opposes assisted suicide outright. That doesn't jibe with the fact that Quebecers choose MAID at rates that are significantly higher than in Canada – twice the rate of MAID requests in Ontario and more than double the rate of Canada’s average.
Then, there’s the issue of climate change. In Quebec, the debate about energy transition, pipelines and carbon reliance is much different than in Canada. When popular pressure stopped the construction of a natural gas pipeline and terminal that would have crossed the province, it was a sign that environmental protection crossed the left-right poles that dominate the same issues in Anglophone Canada.
When a pro-pipeline group put out a survey in August that suggested nearly two-thirds of Quebecers would support new pipeline projects, La Presse journalist Francis Vailles noted that the question didn’t even use the word “pipeline.” Even in this survey, Vailles argued that Quebecers still oppose oil projects at rates that are higher than in Canada. Quebecers support renewables at a slightly higher rate than in Canada too.
It also doesn’t help the Conservatives that one of their principle demands as they stare down an election is for Canada to axe the carbon tax. Quebecers don’t pay Canada’s carbon tax – Quebec developed its carbon pricing program before Canada did. The carbon tax is simply not a vote-winning issue in Quebec.
There are more minor issues that demonstrate the party is not organized enough to win in Quebec. For example, the lanyards made for the 2023 convention had to be tossed because of a typo in the French text.
Bad French plagued the convention package and many delegates made interventions from the floor to ask that grammar be fixed (like making sure that the spouses of all Indigenous veterans would get compensation for their spouse’s service, as per a policy motion in English, rather than just the male spouses, as the French motion stated.)
When recently interviewed by the Globe and Mail, Quebec Conservative Party Leader Éric Duhaime said that he thinks the federal Conservatives need to create an “emotional” connection with Quebecers. Duhaime and his party have never won a seat.
Poilievre certainly made an effort to connect with Quebecers during his convention speech, speaking effortless French, referencing Mes Aïeux’s hit "Dégeneration," and using Quebecisms that would have been lost on the vast majority of delegates present. But is that enough to overcome his party’s other challenges and break through in the province?
Probably not. Back in 2014, pollster Éric Grenier wrote about how the Conservatives were trying to push their way into Quebec’s regions in an effort to take support from the NDP, Liberals and Bloc, and keep their grasp on government. But even then, it seemed unlikely: “Quebeckers may have wavered between the Bloc and NDP … and between the NDP and Liberals … but their opinion of the Harper Conservatives may be much more difficult to change,” Grenier wrote.
Of course, Poilievre could still win government with the support that he currently has in the province. In 2011, Harper won a majority with just five Quebec MPs. But no serious politician would turn their back on an economy and society that is as big and cohesive as Quebec.
If Poilievre could pull off what Brian Mulroney achieved in 1984 and win 58 seats in Quebec, his party would be laughing. But that’s unlikely, especially without a wingman like Mulroney had in Lucien Bouchard, or with the social conservative baggage that Poilievre has hanging around his party.
Will the party soften its image on social conservative issues for the sake of potential gains in Quebec?
The answer to that question at the convention was clear. In Anaida Poilievre’s introduction to her husband’s keynote speech, it was this line that got the biggest applause: “Whenever I think we have it tough, I remember the extraordinary people who carry this country on their shoulders. The nurse, the waitress, the plumber and yes,” she slowed down and raised her voice, “the trucker, who are suffering more.”
The trucker. The Conservatives know the formula to catapult them over the touchy social conservative issues that are a liability in Quebec. The only question is: Will it be successful?
Now, let's turn to the members' corner...
The Conservative Party convention has dominated our coverage these past few days. Here's a quick recap of all our reporting.