Andrew Scheer treads a thin, blue line by courting Quebec nationalists
Why the Bloc Québécois's stubborn popularity could make life difficult for Tories
When Andrew Scheer, the federal Conservative leader, walked onto the grounds of an agricultural fair in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., on Tuesday, he took one look at a combine and immediately felt at home.
"That's an image that's close to my heart," said the Saskatchewan MP, pointing to the mammoth piece of harvesting machinery that dots the fields of his home province.
Saint-Hyacinthe, population 53,000, is an hour's drive east of Montreal and hosts the largest agricultural fair in Quebec every summer.
It is also the site of a federal riding that many expect will be among the most hotly contested in the province.
Saint-Hyacinthe–Bagot is currently in the hands of the NDP. But the party's polling numbers in Quebec have dropped dramatically since 2015, and it will struggle to hold onto its ridings outside Montreal.
The other federal parties, meanwhile, have been circling like vultures around the remnants of the 2011 Orange Wave. Scheer's visit on Wednesday was no accident.
Saint-Hyacinthe–Bagot is one of several ridings in the Quebec heartland, between Montreal and Quebec City, where three-way races are shaping up ahead of the October election.
But unlike in 2015, it's not the NDP that will be joining the Liberals and Conservatives in the ring: it's the Bloc Québécois.
Back from the dead
The sovereigntist party was written off as good as dead a year ago, thanks to the kamikaze-inspired leadership style of Martine Ouellet which eventually led to a caucus revolt.
Since her ignominious departure, the party has found a new leader — Yves-François Blanchet — who has reunited the caucus and now has the Bloc polling just under 20 per cent, according to CBC's poll tracker.
In Saint-Hyacinthe, local Bloc candidate Simon-Pierre Savard-Tremblay says the party has benefited from what he calls Quebec's "new political context" — the unapologetically nationalist government of François Legault and the Coalition Avenir Québec.
Exhibit A of the new political climate is, arguably, the CAQ's so-called secularism law, which bars teachers and other authority figures from wearing religious symbols at work.
Though minority groups argue the law is discriminatory and have filed a constitutional challenge in Quebec Superior Court, it appears to enjoy widespread support in the province.
Many of the fair-goers in Saint-Hyacinthe have yet to decide who will get their vote in the federal election. But many voted for the CAQ in the fall provincial election and support the religious symbols law.
"We had to clear up what secularism is," said Raymond Aubé, a semi-retired technician, as he enjoyed a hot dog with his wife.
"Our premier did what we wanted."
Blanchet, who took over the Bloc in January, has vowed to defend the law from federal interference and to serve as a spokesperson for other parts of the CAQ's nationalist agenda.
"The table is set for us to make gains," said Savard-Tremblay, a 30-year-old political columnist who holds a PhD from a prestigious Paris university.
But as the Bloc uses the religious symbols law to amplify its own nationalist appeal, Scheer's task of winning seats in Quebec's heartland becomes more difficult.
Like his Liberal and NDP counterparts, Scheer has expressed his opposition to the legislation, promising a federal Conservative government would never table similar legislation.
But he, too, has made a show of burnishing his party's nationalist credentials in Quebec.
Back in May, he recruited former Bloc leader Michel Gauthier to make the case to voters in the province that the Tories could be strong defenders of Quebec's interests.
Some small-c conservatives in Quebec, moreover, seem to expect Scheer will be more favourable to the secularism law than Conservative premiers, such as Manitoba's Brian Pallister, who called it "dangerous" and "un-Canadian."
Éric Duhaime — a popular, and populist, Quebec radio host — wrote an op-ed in La Presse earlier this month that predicted a surge in support for the Conservatives come election time.
"The message of Quebec conservatives, who respect Quebec's right to impose secularism, is agreeably at odds with certain conservatives elsewhere in the country," Duhaime wrote.
No place like home
On Tuesday, Scheer was again asked about his position on the religious symbols law.
"Our message to Quebec is that the Conservative Party will be there to champion Quebec's interests. On this particular piece of legislation, I've made my views on that known," he said.
Minority groups in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada have expressed frustration with what they see as a tepid response by all the main federal leaders to the law.
Last week, campaigning in a small city just up the road from Saint-Hyacinthe, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh upped the tone of his criticism.
"There are a lot of people in Quebec who don't feel this is the right way to go, and I can be their champion," he said.
Scheer was invited to make a similar commitment to lead federal opposition to the law. He avoided pledging to go that far.
"Our party will always stand up for individual rights and freedoms. That is our position," the Conservative leader said.
"And as this process works its way through the courts, we'll watch it. But the message is: the federal Conservative party will never propose these types of initiatives at a federal level."
But if the Bloc continues to increase the volume on its support for the controversial law, Scheer may no longer get that warm, fuzzy feeling in places like Saint-Hyacinthe.