O’Toole’s Conservatives Court Quebec Nationalists at Their Peril

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Erin O’Toole’s bid to become the next prime minister of Canada was already off to a rocky start. Having rashly attacked the Trudeau government’s popular CERB program, his next concern was the deficit and how to eliminate it, even though virtually no Canadians are seized with this issue at the moment as they struggle to stay afloat and survive the second wave, many of them by looking for more, not less, financial help from the federal government. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, to learn that the new Conservative Party leader’s next move was to court Quebec nationalists.

This would be a bad idea at any time, never mind in the middle of a pandemic. Will these people never learn? What could they possibly hope to accomplish with this hypocritical and opportunistic move?  Presumably they think this would be a fine way to shore up the party’s wafer-thin support in Quebec. They would be mistaken. Nevertheless, having lost seats to the Bloc in 2019 over Bill 21, (the provincial legislation banning religious headwear and symbols that all federal parties — including the Conservatives under previous leader Andrew Scheer – considered a serious violation of human rights), O’Toole is now promising never to challenge the legislation, and to stay out of many other areas that traditionally have inflamed the Bloc and their supporters, such as immigration. In addition he is proposing to recognize Quebec’s “unique francophone nation within a united Canada.” As if that were not sufficient to start yet another tiresome debate on national unity, he has also volunteered that federally regulated institutions and agencies in the province, such as banks, airlines or Via Rail, should be subject to provincial language legislation limiting the use of English, rather than the federal Official Languages Act.  Even more appalling is his promise to excuse the province from the national minimum standards provision attached to most of the cost-sharing programs of the welfare state, and instead provide that province with funding that has no strings attached. If this sounds reminiscent of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accord proposals that were roundly rejected by most of the country, that’s probably because it is.

Clearly O’Toole has forgotten what happened to Brian Mulroney when he tried those constitutional gambits, and the betrayal of Mulroney’s one-time friend Lucien Bouchard, the man who voted YES in the 1980 referendum and then became a federal Conservative cabinet minister at Mulroney’s request until Meech looked set to fail. Then he fled Mulroney’s cabinet, and party, to form the Bloc Quebecois, while enraged westerners coalesced around the fringe Reform Party. The result was the death of the venerable Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and the rise of the Reform/Alliance/Conservative Party of Stephen Harper. Need we say more?

Harper, it will be recalled, succeeded the hapless Paul Martin, the Liberal leader who had his own flirtation with Quebec nationalists in 2004-6. Having recruited former Bloc co-founder Jean Lapierre to be his Quebec lieutenant, Martin and his advisers confidently expected to expand the Liberal base in that province in the 2006 election. How wrong they were.  Rather than the strong majority of seats they predicted, they lost several and were reduced to their second-worst showing of only 13.

Of course Harper himself also tried and largely failed to attract nationalist support in Quebec, but through his concept of “open federalism” which he applied equally to all provinces. Harper, a staunch opponent of Meech and Charlottetown, would never have gone down the same path as Mulroney, although he did try to put the cat among the pigeons by introducing a meaningless resolution in the House of Commons recognizing Quebec as a “distinct nation” within Canada. His inability to secure more than 10 seats in the province for his party was a singular failure that soon led him to abandon that strategy in favour of a more successful Ontario-western alliance that produced his majority in 2011. 

Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, has further enhanced the Liberals’ fortunes in Quebec by sticking to the same unbending federalist line of his father, a winning strategy that has also served to enhance national unity. Certainly the current prime minister will have learned at his father’s knee that Quebec nationalists can never be appeased. Yet here is OToole, cozying up to the vocal Quebec nationalist contingent in shameless fashion despite the near certainty that he will be disillusioned come the next federal election. He would be much better advised to spend his time learning to speak French as well as Harper did, if he hopes to hold on to any seats at all in the province.