How to translate double-talk

Paul Wells on Stephen Harper's Quebec strategy

How to translate double talk

Chris Wattie/Reuters

“The real lesson of Canadian history,” Stephen Harper told a Montreal audience, is “that while conservatives have come to power by exploiting a nationalist strategy in Quebec, such coalitions have never lasted very long. Indeed, they have ended in political disaster.”

Perhaps you will have guessed already that he didn’t say this recently.

“The broad lesson of history,” Harper told his Montreal audience—in January 2002—“is that Canada’s natural governing coalition always includes the federalist option in Quebec, not the nationalist one.” He called on the Canadian Alliance, which he was campaigning to lead, to “undertake the long-run work necessary to become a federalist option in Quebec acceptable to a significant number of Liberal as well as anti-Liberal voters.”

Then he became the leader of the Alliance and forgot all that stuff. He ran candidates like Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the most nationalist of Quebec Tories, in previously Bloc ridings. He passed the House of Commons motion calling “les Québécois” a nation, a move that provoked Michael Chong to resign as intergovernmental affairs minister.

His campaign and between-campaign advertising in Quebec has mostly spared the Bloc Québécois, even though any federalist can tell you the biggest problem for Quebec in national politics isn’t that it gives a dozen or so seats to the Liberals but that it routinely returns four times as many Bloc MPs.

And now, all of a sudden, there are signs Harper may be changing his strategy in Quebec.

He recruited Larry Smith, the congenial pro football manager and former Montreal Gazette publisher, to sit in the Senate while Smith prepares to run for the Commons in Montreal’s West Island. Smith’s star power is open to debate, but if he has any, it works mostly in English.

And last week the Jewish Tribune reported that Robert Libman, the founding leader of the defunct provincial English-rights Equality Party, was considering running for the Conservatives against Irwin Cotler in Mount Royal. Libman was also the mayor of Côte St. Luc for a while. He’s kind of a big deal. He’d need to be: while Cotler’s share of the popular vote has declined in each of the last two elections, he still beat his Conservative opponent by 10,000 votes in 2008.

I telephoned Libman, for perhaps the first time in 20 years, and he issued such an equivocal denial that none should call him a flip-flopper if he does run. “It is certainly not my immediate intention” to run, he said, adding, “I would certainly never slam the door.”

The Conservatives have indeed approached Libman. “I won’t say what level of the party, at this point.” He thinks Harper is such a strong supporter of Israel that Jewish voters, in this riding with a lot of Jewish voters, are taking a second look at the Conservatives. “There’s certainly a groundswell.” He said a lot of nice things about Cotler, but maintained that “a lot of people here feel he’s not in the right party.”

So mark Libman down as unlikely to run, but tempted. Obviously Mount Royal is a special case, because a party’s attitude toward Israel matters as much there as its attitude toward Quebec’s place in Canada. But Libman’s first foray into politics was all about anger at the failings of a nominally pro-Canadian party—the Quebec Liberals under Robert Bourassa. “Anglophones of Quebec are always caught out in the cold when it comes to federal elections,” he told me. “Liberals assume the anglophone vote is in their pocket.”

Like a lot of things, that’s been changing. The Liberal lead over the Conservatives in Montreal’s West Island was nearly 55 points in 2004. By 2008 it was “only” 30 points. That’s while the Conservatives’ attention was elsewhere, in the centre-right bubble around Quebec City. What if they concentrated on west end Montreal and the West Island suburbs with an explicitly pro-Canada pitch?

I’m afraid that for now, the question will have to remain hypothetical.

Perhaps you’ve seen the Conservatives’ new “Here for Canada” ads on TV. That’s because you’re watching in English. The slogan at the end of the Conservatives’ French-language ads is “Notre région au pouvoir,” our region in power.

So the Conservatives are here for Canada, or not, depending on where “here” is.

Two of the English-language ads evoke the menace of a coalition government composed of Liberals and New Democrats and propped up by the Bloc. But that idea is actually pretty popular in Quebec. Which may explain why none of the Conservatives’ French ads mentions the coalition.

Quebec federalists saved this country in two referendums when everyone else had screwed everything else up. They stood up for Canada when all the clever strategists would have told them that was no way to win votes. They know what double-talk sounds like. They can smell expediency a mile away.

Eight years ago Stephen Harper said he would build his conservative coalition with federalist Quebecers. He is flirting with the idea again. Perhaps he tells himself he is being subtle. Perhaps he did not expect anyone to notice that when he’s doing what matters to him most—tactics—his Canada stops in eastern Ontario and picks up again in New Brunswick. A younger Stephen Harper would have warned him against that.

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