Harper’s French disconnection

High-profile Quebec Tories blast the PM for ignoring the province

Harper's French disconnection

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Peter White is about as conservative (and Conservative) as they come. He worked at Brian Mulroney’s side throughout the former prime minister’s nine-year tenure. In 2001, he turned his frustration with Jean Chrétien’s seemingly perpetual hold on power into a book, Gritlock, perhaps best described as a blueprint of how to neuter the then-powerful Liberal brand. In his free time, the former Hollinger Inc. executive has relentlessly pushed the Conservative brand in his native Quebec, both as a riding president and party organizer. And he’s sick of trying.

In a scathing open letter addressed to Canadians in general and the Conservative party in particular, White roundly criticizes the Conservative Party of Canada for ignoring francophones in general and Quebec in particular. “Today the voice of Quebec is virtually absent in Ottawa’s halls of power, or if present, it is a voice grown mighty small, and mighty easy to ignore,” White writes in the letter dated Jan. 12. “Since the election of May 2, 2011, many Quebec observers have concluded that Mr. Harper has consciously decided to ignore Quebec, now that he has convincingly demonstrated that he can win a majority without it.”

For some Conservatives outside the province, Stephen Harper might be forgiven for shunning Quebec. The Prime Minister has never been particularly popular in the province; he won a majority in last spring’s election thanks largely to a marked increase in support in Ontario and sustained support in the western provinces. In Quebec, meanwhile, the party lost five incumbent MPs (equalling half of its provincial caucus) and nearly a quarter of its popular vote. It marked the first time since the Conscription Crisis of 1917 that a government formed a majority with so little support from Quebec.

But while the rebalancing of power in favour of the West may seem natural for the Toronto-born, Alberta-bred populist, White says Harper’s Quebec brush-off will lead to a “de-Canadianization of Quebec,” in which Quebecers see less and less of themselves in the federal government—and turn (or return) instead to the Bloc Québécois. “Any competent demagogue—and there are several—could easily fan the tinder into flames by decrying the many petty slights inflicted on Quebec’s honour and pride at the hands of Ottawa since Mr. Harper has been Prime Minister.”

The sentiment is privately shared by a number of Quebec Conservatives, many of whom wouldn’t speak on the record about the party’s Quebec malaise. Some spoke of the lack of support from the party during the election, which has carried over into Harper’s first majority mandate. “To be successful, you need Conservative politicians regularly meeting with party activists, and in Quebec that isn’t happening,” says Bernard Côté, who served as adviser to former Conservative public works minister Michael Fortier. “I don’t know who is talking to who. Is it a lack of experience or desire? I don’t know.”

Contrary to the cliché that Quebec is a bastion of squishy leftists, a large swath of the province’s political landscape is receptive to small-c conservative ideals. Brian Mulroney twice swept Quebec largely by harnessing the conservative sensibilities of the province’s hinterland. In her 2007 book French Kiss, political columnist Chantal Hébert details how Harper made inroads in the province during the 2006 election campaign by appealing to those same sensibilities, and with a few highly symbolic gestures: recognizing the Québécois as a nation within Canada, and by beginning his speeches by speaking in French (a practice the Prime Minister continues to this day). An internal Bloc Québécois document written following that election noted, with barely hidden panic, how Harper resonated with “traditional, careful, old-stock French who … don’t see themselves in multi-ethnic Montreal.”

Harper’s French kiss effectively ended in the 2008 election, however, after announcing his youth crime bill and a disastrous decision to cut $45 million in arts funding from the province. Some say Harper hasn’t yet recovered from the slight. “Since 2008, there’s been a feeling that because Quebec shunned the Conservative party, that the Conservative party was going to do the same,” Côté says.

One example: the Conservatives only held their Quebec campaign post-mortem four months after the election, and it was co-chaired by Conservative campaign strategist Jenni Byrne. “All I know is that she doesn’t speak French,” says Georgette St-Onge, the Conservative riding president in Joliette. (Asked for comment, a Conservative spokesperson said “we have a strong and committed team” in Quebec. Neither Conservative MP and Quebec lieutenant Christian Paradis or Quebec adviser André Bachand responded to interview requests.)

White says he has met “four or five times” with Harper over the last two years, including an extended meeting last April, and he usually prefaces his criticism of the Prime Minister with praise for the man who united Canada’s right. He says there are fairly simple solutions to Harper’s image problem in Quebec—“Get him on French television to talk only about hockey” is one of them—but “the fact that he doesn’t do any of this makes me come to the sad conclusion that he doesn’t give a damn,” White said in an interview with Maclean’s.

“His image here is the pits. I’ve had francophones say to me publicly that they think he’s got ears and a tail, and he eats babies. And these are conservatives. They can’t understand why Harper doesn’t fix his image. Everyone knows he doesn’t eat babies, but he does everything he can to make people think he does.”

It isn’t only national unity at stake, White says, noting how the NDP has usurped much of the province, and that the Liberal party is slowly rebuilding its brand here. “Re-securing Quebec would re-energize the Liberals’ Ontario base, and all of a sudden Mr. Harper’s studied (or otherwise) avoidance of Quebec will become a problem for him,” White writes in his letter. “In politics as in life, you deserve what you tolerate. And most Quebec Conservatives are fed up.”



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