Many moons ago, when Conservative party strategists dreamed of a majority government, their thoughts turned to Quebec. The Conservative brand of laissez-faire government was a natural fit for the province’s bevy of soft nationalists, tired of the scandal-plagued Liberals and the perpetual opposition of the Bloc Québécois. And there was a precedent: Quebec was the gateway to Brian Mulroney’s sweep of the country in 1984. For Stephen Harper, it was a matter of boning up on his French and promising Quebec a UNESCO seat and—voila!—the party garnered 10 seats in the 2006 election, not bad for a party led by a Toronto-born, Calgary-bred politician.
What a difference five years makes. Other than a by-election win, giving it a total of 11 seats, the party has failed to capitalize on this advantage. Today, several Conservative MPs are struggling just to hang on. The Tory position was never bulletproof in Quebec—Conservative MPs in the ridings of Montmagny-L’islet, Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean and Beauport-Limoilou won with five per cent or less over their opponents. And they now face sustained political opposition from the Bloc—as well as an increased presence by the other federalist parties. “It’s going to be very close,” says Dominic Maurais, host of a morning show on the populist CHOI-FM radio station in Quebec City. “The Conservative challenge will be to convince the disenfranchised Liberals out there to go and vote for them.”
Trouble is, there may be fewer of those than there used to be. Both the Liberals and the NDP saw an (admittedly modest) increase in their votes in most Quebec City ridings between the 2006 and the 2008 elections, and while the Liberals don’t sound particularly optimistic about winning in the area—“We’re doing the best that we can,” Marc Garneau, the party’s Quebec lieutenant, told Maclean’s—the NDP is opening a regional office in the city for the first time in party history. “We are very bullish on our prospects in Quebec in general,” says NDP communications director Kathleen Monk. The NDP is a bit of a wild card: according to polls, the party’s lefty sensibilities appeal to those who might otherwise vote for the Bloc, while Leader Jack Layton is more popular in the province than Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff.
As for the Bloc Québécois, it has always fared better when there is more competition between federalist parties, and there has rarely been more on the federal scene than in the upcoming election. “If we go purely by mathematics, all we have to do is maintain our vote and we’ll win,” says Michel Létourneau, the newly minted Bloc candidate in the riding of Beauport-Limoilou. Strictly speaking, he’s right: a well-known concert and festival promoter from the area, he’s running against Conservative MP Sylvie Boucher, who bested the Bloc candidate by a scant 2,000 votes in 2008. And unlike the Conservatives, whose leader’s popularity has more or less flatlined in the province, his party has Gilles Duceppe, far and away the province’s most popular political figure.
Boucher and her Conservative colleagues, of course, not only have to contend with an uptick in Liberal and NDP efforts, but a high-profile gaffe on the part of their own party. In the fall of 2010, eight Conservative MPs, Boucher included, now famously donned Quebec Nordiques jerseys for a caucus meeting. The loss of the hockey team to Colorado in 1995 has been a sore spot for many in the Capitale Nationale, and as the cameras snapped, the MPs strongly suggested a Conservative government would help pay for a new arena for the return of the team. “The Conservative party has received important support in Quebec City,” Jonquière-Alma MP Jean-Pierre Blackburn told the Globe and Mail, apparently suggesting Quebec City residents deserved a stadium for having voted Conservative.
The photo op prompted howls across the country and within the Conservative party itself. When Harper said Quebec wouldn’t receive public funds to build a stadium, many residents said the Quebec City MPs broke their promise, implied or otherwise. Though she won’t call the jersey incident a gaffe—“I’m 48 years old, I can wear what I want”—Boucher admits it didn’t help the Conservative brand. “The Bloc is always on our heels,” she told Maclean’s recently. “Do they have a star candidate running against me? Maybe.”
Struggling to hold on to what they have, Conservatives won’t likely build on their Quebec beachhead this time around. That’s an old dream: these days the road to a Conservative majority doesn’t run through Quebec.