Conservatives have a long, tumultuous history of trying to figure out Quebec

Since the death of John A. Macdonald, the Conservatives have struggled to maintain a lasting relationship with voters in Quebec.

Can they break through in Quebec without alienating their western base? Is it worth it?

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's failure to get Quebec's signature on the Constitution contributed to the creation of the Bloc Québécois and his party's catastrophic election result in 1993. (Fred Chartrand / Canadian Press)

Once upon a time (back when John A. Macdonald was running things) Quebec reliably handed a majority of its seats to the Conservative Party in election after election. The province was an important part of the Conservatives' governing coalition — and a battleground where Liberals laboured in vain to break through.

Much has changed since the days of Sir John A., of course. Ever since his death in 1891, the Conservatives have struggled to figure out Quebec. That struggle is coming to a head again, as the party prepares to choose the latest successor to the Old Chieftain.

Michelle Rempel Garner, a Conservative MP from Alberta, has lamented the fact that so much of the focus in the early days of the Conservative leadership race has been on Ontario, Quebec and the candidates' facility with the French language — with Western Canada being taken largely for granted.

The results of the last federal election explain this focus. The Conservatives won 54 of 62 seats in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but made no significant gains in Ontario and actually lost seats in Quebec — the only province where that happened.

Many in the party have concluded that the next leader of the Conservative Party must be someone who is able to speak to Quebec — not just someone who's comfortable in French, but someone offering policies that appeal to Quebecers. That would help make the Conservatives competitive in Quebec and, by extension, in Ontario, where voters seem to value a leader who is bilingual and can bridge the divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

A Léger poll conducted last month suggests Ontarians were somewhat more likely to want bilingualism in a Conservative leader than voters in other parts of the country (with the exception of Quebec, where the desire for a bilingual Conservative leader was nearly unanimous).

But a Conservative leadership contest that puts the emphasis on Quebec and bilingualism at the expense of other issues could aggravate the party's Western base. Taking more progressive stances on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage also would risk shunning socially conservative members of the party.

For Conservatives, accommodating Quebec has always involved a delicate balancing act. They've rarely managed to pull it off in the past — and when they have, it hasn't lasted long.

The sky is blue, hell is red

In the 19th century, Quebec was a conservative province where the Roman Catholic Church held enormous sway. Suspecting that Canadian Liberals might follow in the anti-clerical footsteps of liberals in Europe, church leaders told their parishioners that "le ciel est bleu, l'enfer est rouge (the sky/heaven is blue, hell is red)" — an unsubtle exhortation to vote Tory rather than Liberal.

The Conservatives under Macdonald did well in Quebec, winning a majority of the province's seats in every election in which the party formed government — with the exception of Macdonald's last, when native son Wilfrid Laurier put the Liberals on the map.

Laurier's Liberals continued to dominate in Quebec until 1911, when Robert Borden formed a political alliance with Henri Bourassa's nationalists. The deal worked: Borden's Conservatives and new allies won 28 of Quebec's 65 seats in that year's election and formed a majority government. But it was doomed to fail.

During the First World War, Prime Minister Robert Borden imposed conscription and ran a divisive election campaign targeting Quebec. Afterwards, his Conservatives struggled to gain support in the province for a generation. (Canadian Press)

Borden and Bourassa shared a common foe in Laurier, but for different reasons. Borden's Conservatives doubted Laurier's attachment to the British Empire as tensions with Germany increased, while Bourassa feared that Laurier would send young French Canadians to fight and die in Britain's wars.

Before long, Bourassa's nationalists withdrew their support from Borden. As the First World War dragged on, his government moved to institute conscription and Bourassa found a new ally in Laurier. In the 1917 election, Borden's Conservatives accused both Laurier and Bourassa of hurting the war effort and helping the German Kaiser.

Conscription was deeply unpopular in Quebec and the Liberals won 62 of 65 seats in the province in 1917. But the rest of the country went to the Conservatives (re-branded as Unionists, due to the inclusion of a few pro-conscription Liberals) in big numbers, keeping Borden in office with only minimal representation in Quebec.

The brief dalliance with Quebec nationalists and the subsequent split doomed the Conservatives in Quebec for a generation. With the single exception of the 1930 election, when W.L. Mackenzie King's Liberals were defeated in the midst of the Great Depression (when voters were rejecting governments across the country), the Conservatives never won more than five seats in Quebec in the elections between 1921 and 1953.

Diefenbaker, bilingualism and the Bloc

Things changed for the Progressive Conservatives (as they were then called) under John Diefenbaker. The PCs won a minority government in 1957, unseating the Liberals after more than two decades in office, but won only nine seats in Quebec. The next year, however, the province joined the rest of the country in giving a huge mandate to the Diefenbaker Tories.

But the PCs didn't win their 50 seats in Quebec without some help. The party received the support of Premier Maurice Duplessis's political machine — a crucial factor in Diefenbaker's breakthrough.

It was short-lived. Diefenbaker's "One Canada" policies — which rejected the idea of the country having two founding peoples — and the lack of influential Quebecers in cabinet sapped Diefenbaker's popularity in Quebec.

By 1962, Duplessis was dead, his right-wing Union Nationale was out of power and the Quiet Revolution was in full swing. Suddenly, the PCs were completely out of step with where the province was going.

In that year's federal election, the Quebec PC caucus was reduced to 14 seats. It would continue to drop in each election for the next 20 years.

Robert Stanfield (left) won the PC leadership in 1967, replacing John Diefenbaker (right). The two disagreed on official bilingualism. (Peter Hall / Canadian Press)

The PCs tried to recover their appeal in Quebec under Robert Stanfield, a unilingual Nova Scotian who was supportive of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's plan to adopt official bilingualism. But his caucus was not entirely with him and the party fell into the traps set by the Trudeau Liberals to expose the divide in the party.

That wound was still festering during the race to replace Stanfield in 1976, when the membership was split between Stanfield's eastern moderates and Diefenbaker's western conservatives. Joe Clark, a bilingual westerner in the Stanfield mould, couldn't solve the problem. He won just two seats in Quebec in 1979 and only one in 1980.

Brian Mulroney changed things for the PCs. A bilingual Quebecer, Mulroney offered an olive branch to Quebec's nationalists and won a huge majority of the province's seats in 1984 and 1988. He even found an unlikely ally in Premier René Lévesque, who was willing to take the "beau risque" offered by Mulroney when he pledged to get Quebec's signature on the constitution.

The result was the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, a spike in support for Quebec independence and the destruction of the Progressive Conservatives as their Western base shifted its votes to the Reform Party and their newfound Quebec support went to the Bloc Québécois. The Conservatives haven't won more than 12 seats in the province since.

Winning without Quebec is possible, but not easy

The Liberals have long made sustained efforts to woo Quebec — alternating between Quebecers and non-Quebecers as leaders and ensuring the presence of strong francophone voices around the cabinet table. With their electoral base concentrated in Central Canada, the Liberals have had to make fewer compromises that would offend Quebecers. While the party has had some bad elections, it still tends to be the main competition for whatever political vehicle Quebec nationalists are backing.

When the Conservatives have managed to supplant the Liberals as Quebec's federalist vehicle of choice, they've made significant breakthroughs in the province. But the Conservatives have not been able to sustain those gains, in part because of the difficulty in meeting the demands of both Quebec nationalists and their Western base. When the Conservatives have faltered in Quebec, other parties have filled that role — the Créditistes, the New Democrats or the Bloc.

This is a problem for the Conservatives. While the party doesn't necessarily need Quebec to form a government, it has managed it only rarely without significant representation from the province.

Since the turn of the last century, the Conservatives have formed a majority government every time they've won at least 35 per cent of Quebec's seats. Only twice have they formed a majority government with less than that — in 1917 and 2011. Both were exceptional elections. The conscription crisis explicitly pitted French Canada against English Canada. In 2011, the collapse of the Liberals and the surge of the NDP scrambled the country's traditional voting patterns.

It's possible that winning without Quebec will get easier as the province's demographic clout in Canada continues to diminish. But this is not a new trend. There have been more seats in Western Canada than in Quebec since 1979, and both Diefenbaker in 1958 and Mulroney in 1984 won enough seats in the rest of Canada to secure a majority without a single seat in Quebec.

Obviously, it's easier for the Conservatives to form a majority government when they have a lot of seats in Quebec. This latest debate isn't new; for decades, Conservatives have been chasing Quebec while arguing among themselves over whether it's worth the trouble.

It's a glittering electoral prize, but Conservative successes there have been rare — and often have come at great cost.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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