By Althia Raj / September 15, 2023
The Conservative party has set its target on the Bloc Québécois and the fight for Quebec votes may get ugly.
The party’s convention was centre stage for leader Pierre Poilievre’s dual strategy this weekend – a charm offensive toward soft nationalists and an aggressive campaign against the Bloc, which holds the seats the Tories may need to form a majority government.
Those around Poilievre believe he’s well-placed to shatter the modern party’s 12-seat ceiling in the province and uniquely positioned to show Quebecers he’s a Conservative leader unlike any other.
Anyone watching Friday’s convention speeches would have noticed Poilievre and his wife’s seduction efforts.
In introducing her husband, Anaida, a Venezuelan-born refugee brought up in Montreal, repeatedly cited the province’s nationalist-tinged motto “Je me souviens.”
She spoke of the Quebec bands she listened to as a teen (Les Colocs, Dubmatique), and the shows she watched on TV (“La petite vie,” “Watatatow”). “It’s Quebecois that I speak because ‘I remember’ that it is Quebec that welcomed me when my family and I immigrated to Canada,” she said, en français.
Poilievre cited lyrics from the group Mes Aïeux’s popular song “Dégénarations” (carefully referencing a part involving “dreams of land ownership” rather than the line about “frequent abortions”). He spoke admiringly of the province protecting its language and culture, the genius of its hydroelectric know-how, and pledged to “always be an ally” for Quebec. If that was too subtle, he twice shouted from the stage: “Vive la nation Québécoise!” (‘Long live the Quebecois nation!’)
The party’s Quebec courtship will work this time, members of his team told the Star, because Poilievre faces none of the challenges leaders before him experienced.
Stephen Harper couldn’t emotionally connect with Quebecers, Andrew Scheer couldn’t shake off the abortion question, and Erin O’Toole suffered from nationalist voters feeling attacked and clinging to the Bloc.
“(Poilievre’s) wife is a francophone – a Quebecer who understands Quebec … He’s a francophone who lost his French and had to relearn it,” a senior adviser said.
“To win in this province, you need to become loved,” said this source, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. Leaders must show charisma, sensitivity and where their values will lead them. “Poilievre has an emotional intelligence that Harper didn’t have. He’s warm and can connect with people … Plus, no one will be able to say that Poilievre is against immigrants because he married a refugee,” they added.
For Quebec voters, who tend to be more liberal than the rest of the country, two other factors are at play: Poilievre has said he’s pro-choice and he told Canadians last year his father is gay.
“We think we have the right formula,” the adviser said.
Still, it’s not enough to be liked, you must give people a reason to vote for you.
And here, the party also believes it has a winning strategy – tying the Bloc Québécois to the increasingly unpopular Liberals and suggesting the nationalist party is working against voters’ interest in Ottawa.
Last Tuesday, the party started running TV ads targeting the Bloc for propping up Trudeau, using the tag line: “It costs a lot to vote Bloc.”
The attack-style ads use clips of Bloc MPs in Parliament calling on the federal government to increase the price of carbon to address the climate crisis. Quebec has its own cap-and-trade system and isn’t subject to the federal backstop.
But the ad somewhat confuses the issue, talking about a federal carbon tax when referencing new clean fuel regulations that Ottawa estimates will increase the price of gas by 16 cents when it fully kicks in 2030. “It’s crass disinformation,” Bloc MP Denis Trudel complained to radio station FM 103.3 last week.
Not so, insisted another adviser, Poilievre’s Quebec lieutenant, MP Pierre Paul-Hus.
“What we are demonstrating with the ads and the examples is that Quebecers aren’t really aware of what the Bloc is doing,” he told the Star. “We are using facts – their own words – to show that the Bloc isn’t necessarily working in the interest of Quebecers as they pretend – and that is something that has never been done before (by the party).”
More ads, on other subjects, are on the way.
If the Bloc is a target, it’s not just because the province’s 78 seats are ripe for the picking, but also because many Quebecers park their vote with the centre-left party even if they don’t align ideologically with it on all matters.
From the 1990s until 2011, the Bloc held 50 to 72 per cent of the province’s seats. Harper tried to court Bloc voters by declaring that the Quebecois formed a nation within a united Canada, but he never obtained more than 12 seats. Scheer and O’Toole held on to 10, though the Quebec Conservative caucus is down to nine after MP Alain Rayes quit last year, suggesting Poilievre’s “hateful” and “toxic” rhetoric on social media, his lack of concern for climate change, and his unwillingness to stand up for law and order in the face of Donald Trump-style attacks against democratic institutions left him feeling like he no longer belonged in his party.
Twelve months later, those comments still bite. They are the biggest challenge the party says it faces in trying to reframe Poilievre. “First impressions matter,” said the adviser. “That planted a narrative that is false, but one we need to work hard to combat.”