At this weekend’s meeting of federal Conservatives, it was the former Bloc Québécois leader who stood out.
As Michel Gauthier stood in the hallway of the Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., convention centre, a steady stream of Tory supporters came to shake his hand, take selfies and welcome him to the fold.
Early Saturday morning, in front of a bevy of television cameras, Gauthier signed a Conservative party membership card. It was his first partisan act since leaving politics more than a decade ago.
“I now find that the Conservative party is the one that, by far, demonstrates the most openness to Quebec,” said Gauthier, who led the Bloc briefly in the 1990s and was the party’s long-time house leader.
The Conservatives are hoping other Bloc members will follow suit.
Gauthier’s old party is in an advanced state of decomposition. Of the 10 Bloc MPs who were elected in the last election, only three remain. Large sections of the party are also in open warfare against leader Martine Ouellet.
Should the Bloc’s collapse continue apace, it would leave a large crop of Quebec voters without a political home at the federal level.
During a speech Sunday in Saint-Hyacinthe, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer invited them into his party, promising to advocate for a robust Quebec nationalism.
“We’ve known for years that there were people who voted for the Bloc who weren’t really sovereigntists, but who were looking for a strong voice for Quebec,” Scheer said during a news conference following his speech, which was largely in French.
“In the next election, our party will be the strong voice for Quebec.”
Les Bleus are back. Maybe
Though the signs are still few and far between, the prospect of Quebec nationalists backing the Conservatives in large numbers has many in the party waxing nostalgic.
Brian Mulroney’s sweeping majorities in the 1980s were due, in large part, to the coalition he built between francophone nationalists and more traditional Tories in the rest of Canada.
It was the fracturing of that coalition, following the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, that led to the creation of the Bloc. Afterwards, Quebec nationalism — as expressed by the Bloc and the Parti Québécois — was largely a left-wing affair.
Conservatives are now hoping to disrupt that logic.
“Nationalism as a concept is inherently conservative. It’s about the preservation of language and culture,” said Carl Vallée, who worked as press secretary for prime minister Stephen Harper and is now a partner with Hatley, a Montreal consulting firm.
Harper took a number of steps toward making space for Quebec nationalism within his more decentralized approach to federalism, including the 2006 parliamentary motion that recognized the “Québécois” as a nation.
After having been wiped off the map in Quebec, the steps taken by Harper helped the Tories build a small but sturdy base in the province.
More importantly, said Vallée, by not picking fights with sovereigntists, Harper took some of the bite out of the movement, contributing to its current struggles on both the federal and provincial scene.
With sovereignty on the wane, Quebec politics is settling into more conventional ideological debates.
“It’s really looking like it’s going to be a two-way race in Quebec,” said Vallée. “Are you for Trudeau, or are you against him? There is only going to be one other option and it will likely be Andrew Scheer.”
Same old struggles
The pitch to Quebec nationalists involves promising to respect provincial jurisdiction, more support for victims of crime and stronger immigration and border controls.
Scheer, too, is taking steps to raise his profile in Quebec. He’s multiplied his visits to the province in recent months, and practises his French with his Quebec caucus.
Last week, he appeared on the popular French-language talk show Tout le monde en parle, something his predecessor always refused to do.
But some of the obstacles that prevented Harper from making more substantial gains in Quebec remain in place for Scheer.
Chief among these are the strains of social conservatism that run through the party’s Western base, and which are at odds with the more liberal lifestyle values of Quebecers.
When Manitoba MP Ted Falk cried out in the House of Commons last week that abortion was “not a right,” the party’s Quebec lieutenant, Alain Rayes, publicly distanced himself from his colleague.
Scheer was asked about Falk’s outburst on Sunday.
He said he addressed the issue with Falk, and repeated his promise that a Conservative government would not reopen the abortion debate.
The controversy underscored that while the Conservatives are no longer on the brink of extinction in Quebec, their support in the province remains fragile.