Himself to blame for his Quebec problem

By Chantal Hébert \ April 28, 2023

More than six months after his election as Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre has yet to meet Quebec Premier François Legault one on one.

That stands in stark contrast with his two immediate predecessors. Notwithstanding the pandemic, Erin O’Toole and Legault met face-to-face less than a month after the former became leader in August 2020.

Andrew Scheer showed up for a meeting with the premier two short weeks after the CAQ was first elected to government in 2018.

There is more at play here than the usual challenges involved in matching the agendas of two busy politicians.

By the time Poilievre and Legault get around to a sit-down meeting, they will have a lot less to talk about than they would have had back in September.

For by now, there is little left of the Quebec agenda that earned O’Toole the premier’s implicit endorsement in the last election.

Over the course of the leadership campaign, Poilievre renounced the party’s hands-off position on Quebec’s contentious securalism law. And on health-care funding, he would stick to the terms the prime minister set out over his recent round of negotiations with the provinces.

At the same time, many of the other irritants that prevailed between the two governments at the time of the last federal election have been resolved.

On that score, the ongoing thaw in the previously icy relationship between Legault and Justin Trudeau’s government has been nothing short of remarkable.

The loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement has been plugged, with Roxham Road no longer being used as the main entry point for irregular migration from the United States to Canada.

In an unlikely development, the two governments have reconciled their respective language legislation, with Legault now fully behind Trudeau’s rewritten Official Languages Act.

After years of provincial lobbying, the federal government added Quebec shipyard Chantier Davie as the third shipyard in its multibillion-dollar ship procurement plan. At the same time, the federal budget and its plan for a green economy stands to translate into generous tax breaks for Hydro Quebec.

Last month, Trudeau endorsed Legault’s pick for the role of second in command of L’Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. Former Bloc MP Caroline St-Hilaire was defeated as a CAQ star candidate in last fall’s Quebec election.

To cap it all, this week Legault walked back his party’s long-standing promise to build a car tunnel to link the provincial capital to its south shore.

The revised plan would see the projected infrastructure reserved exclusively for public transit. Under the current Liberal rules, that would make it eligible for a share of federal funding.

For Poilievre’s Quebec caucus, the CAQ’s stunning turnaround amounts to a big platform loss. The Conservative promise to back the road component of the original third link plan was a popular part of its local election platform.

And while the Conservatives are trying to mitigate the loss by shifting some of the blame for Legault’s decision onto Trudeau, the premier himself is not pointing the finger at the federal government.

For the Conservatives in Quebec, this latest development comes on the heels of a difficult week.

Until now, Poilievre’s English-only vendetta against the CBC had largely gone unnoticed in the province. But that ended with his latest vocal efforts to depict the CBC as a propaganda tool of the Liberal government.

In Quebec, Poilievre’s high-profile crusade raised a host of fresh questions as to how a Conservative government would treat Radio-Canada.

It does not help that serious answers have not been forthcoming. For instead of defending their leader, his Quebec MPs ran for cover, declining all media overtures to expand on their party’s intentions.

While the CBC may lack for champions and audiences in many regions of the country, such is not the case in Quebec, where many of its programs play to top ratings and its news reporting is considered among the most reliable.

Indeed, the last time the Conservatives believed they could score points by taking an axe (or in that case, a small hatchet) to the budget of some cultural institutions goes back to the 2008 election.

Such was the backlash in Quebec that it cost Stephen Harper his competitive position in the province’s polls and what had been a solid shot at securing a governing majority.

Suffice it to say that Poilievre – whose standing in Quebec puts him in competition with the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh for last place among the major parties – did not do himself or his party any good in the province this week.

In other times, many Conservatives would shrug off their party’s fading prospects in Quebec by noting that the next election will first and foremost be fought in Ontario. Except that by keeping his distance from Poilievre, Legault is really following Premier Doug Ford’s lead.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert

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