Conservative leadership candidates fight for crucial Quebec in French debate
Expectations are high for former Quebec Premier Jean Charest as he is about to take the stage for the leadership debate of the French-speaking Conservatives in his home province, a crucial region has been instrumental in the last two leadership races.
Charest, who is fully bilingual, must win the province if he hopes to win the contest, said a former Conservative leadership candidate and political analyst.
“He plays at home in a way,” said Rudy Husny. “In his game plan, he must win and show very good results in Quebec to have a path to victory.
The second official debate of the party race takes place near Montreal on Wednesday, with candidates only having about a week left to sell membership cards to supporters so they can vote.
Quebec and its 78 ridings have played a key role in the party’s last two races, which saw Erin O’Toole elected in 2020 and Andrew Scheer in 2017. A change made last year, however, could change the role the party plays. Quebec in the decision of who will be the next leader of the party.
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In previous races, each race was worth 100 points. This was adjusted last year after long-standing concerns that constituencies with less than 100 members carried the same weight as those with more than 1,000 members. Quebec, in particular, has a smaller membership base.
A change has been made so that constituencies with less than 100 MPs are awarded points based on the number of votes cast. This left the candidates in this race working to sell memberships in Quebec to ensure ridings have at least 100 members.
Charest entered the race after spending more than 20 years out of federal politics, including the last decade in the private sector. His campaign sees a path to victory for the former federal Progressive Conservative leader by recruiting many new members, including in Quebec.
“He knows the province, obviously, more than anyone,” said Gerard Deltell, a Conservative MP in the party’s Quebec caucus. Most of them support Charest.
“This is the road to winning and we are winning this road.”
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Charest has established himself as the leader the party needs to bridge the country’s geographic divides and bring it more success in Quebec. Since the party’s formation in 2003, the Conservatives have struggled to increase their support for Quebec beyond the 12 seats they once held under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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In the 2021 federal election, the Conservatives won 10 seats in that province, compared to 35 for the Liberals and 32 for the Bloc Québécois.
Regarding Wednesday’s debate, Deltell dismissed the notion of higher expectations for Charest than the other five candidates, saying the debate will be an important event for all of them.
Husny sees the debate largely dominated by Charest and Pierre Poilievre, the party’s longtime MP in the Ottawa area – and is also competing for members from Quebec – because of their language skills.
Poilievre is fluent in French and spent the weekend campaigning in the province.
On Tuesday, he wrote to federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, calling on the Liberal government to scrap the gas tax and gas GST for the summer because of the high prices consumers are paying.
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Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, Ontario, is also expected to be able to keep up with the French-language debate, which will be held in Laval, Quebec, just north of Montreal. The former MP has largely focused his campaign on selling party memberships to immigrant and racialized Canadians, including those who live in Montreal.
One of his biggest promises was to fight a controversial law on secularism in Quebec known by its legislative title of Bill 21. It prohibits certain public officials deemed to hold positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work.
Before entering the race, Brown led a campaign among cities across Canada to pledge financial support behind a legal challenge to the law. He says it violates religious freedoms.
Poilievre has previously said he believes the law is wrong and hopes Quebec will repeal it. Charest also expressed his opposition to Bill 21.
Deltell said while some may favor Brown’s approach of more vigorously fighting the law in court, many do not because it would infringe on Quebec’s jurisdiction.
“I totally disagree with the fact that the mayor of a town in another province decided to put money against a provincial decision,” he said.
Husny predicts that Bill 21, along with Quebec’s new language law known as Bill 96, will be among the issues raised during the debate.
He said he also expects to see applicants discuss the Roxham Road border crossing in Quebec that many asylum seekers have used to enter Canada from the United States. Quebec Premier François Legault recently asked Ottawa to shut it down.
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