Quebec city at sunset from Pierre-Dugua-De-Mons Terrace
Artillery Row

To stay together, Canadian Tories should stand apart

The CPC should do a full Murdo Fraser in Quebec

La belle province has been a sort of political unicorn for the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) since 2003. Lots of Canadian Conservatives look at Québec and see a province full of small-c conservatives who cherish and want to conserve their heritage and culture and are thus ripe for the picking. Electoral strategy and the allocation of resources has reflected this. But this misunderstands both the basis of Québécois conservatism and its uniqueness, and why it’s going to be very difficult for the Conservatives to ever make lasting breakthroughs in Québec. There is a way to mobilize Québec’s distinctive small-c conservatism, but it would require something quite radical: a connected but separate conservative provincial party in Québec at the federal level. Erin O’Toole’s remarkable victory as the new CPC leader was won in large part due to his success in Québec: there are lessons to be had here.

A Conservative Unicorn

I’m a self-professed Francophile and find Québec to be a uniquely charming and fascinating place. If you’ve never had the chance to visit Québec City, I highly recommend it, it might be the most beautiful and picturesque city in North America. Despite not being Québécois I genuinely sympathise with Québec’s desire to preserve its distinctiveness. Lots of Conservatives sense this as well and see electoral opportunities.

The breakthrough of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) under François Legault in 2018 might suggest this is possible. The CAQ’s massive victory was built not on winning on the island of Montréal, but by sweeping all before it across the rest of the province, parts of Québec that are much more culturally conservative and overwhelmingly francophone than Montréal.

CAQ voters seem, on the surface, like “small c” cultural conservatives that could be a potential source of big C Conservative voters. But it’s a hypothesis that, while making sense on a very surface level understanding of Québec and its cultural conservatism, is fundamentally flawed. Since the Reform/PC merger in 2003 that created the CPC, this is how the party has done in Québec:

You can see that the seat counts are fairly consistent since 2006, with the Conservatives having established a stronghold in and around Québec City, but with minimal success beyond that. While in 2006 the CPC looked set for a breakthrough, the total vote share has declined ever since. But after CAQ’s 2018 victory there was real chatter that the Conservatives might be able to make significant gains in Québec in 2019, and the party dedicated a lot of effort to this. Of course, this never materialized.

The CAQ are generally understood as a conservative or centre-right party, but what happened in 2019 reveals something crucial about the nature of contemporary Québec conservatism. A good analysis by Philippe J. Fournier in Maclean’s showed how it was the Bloc Québécois (Bloc), not the Conservatives that did the best in CAQ dominated parts of Québec.

The Bloc are a sort of social democratic nationalist party, so on a superficial left-right understanding it doesn’t make much sense why CAQ support transferred largely to the Bloc if the CAQ are a conservative party, especially considering the Bloc’s sister provincial party, the Parti Québécois, is now on the verge of extinction because of the CAQ’s rise.

Québec’s Distinctive Conservatism

But it actually makes total sense. The CAQ are Québec nationalists, but Legault, himself a former sovereigntist, has pledged to “never, never” hold another independence referendum and says his own views have changed. Legault’s evolution reflects that of many Québec nationalists, committed to preserving Québec’s distinctiveness and autonomy, but within Canada, not outside of it.

The Bloc became a party in 2019 not just for separatists, but increasingly for these autonomists as well. While there are still plenty of separatists in the Bloc, putting the independence question aside and focusing on nationalist and cultural issues enabled the Bloc to capitalize on the CAQ realignment of Québec.

These caqistes are not conservatives in the same way as conservatives elsewhere in the country, they are primarily nationalists and cultural conservatives committed to preserving Québec’s autonomy and cultural distinctiveness.

You see this very clearly in the writing and thought of Québec’s most prominent conservative writers and commentators, in newspapers like Le Devoir, or in the writing of Mathieu Bock-Côté for Le Journal de Montréal. This commentary is overtly culturally conservative in ways that you would never find in the National Post, or even our Sun.

The real hallmark of the government has been a culturally conservative agenda

Since 2018 the CAQ has governed in a way that reflects this as well. Pre-pandemic they were running sensible budgets with surpluses, like their Liberal predecessors, but the real hallmark of the government has been a culturally conservative agenda. The most well-known is Bill-21, a laïcité law that prohibits many public servants from wearing religious attire while they’re on duty. But there are other things that have gotten much less attention in the anglophone press. The CAQ have cut immigration numbers (a provincial responsibility in Québec), and tightened up rules about access to public service in languages other than French (with protections for Québec’s anglophone minority).

These Quebecois conservatives aren’t interested in the kind of watered down Anglo-liberal conservatism that is basically what’s on offer from the CPC and across the rest of the country. Their conservatism is focused on cultural and national issues specific to Québec; it’s a particularistic conservatism in which cultural conservatism is much more important than questions around markets, deregulation, taxes, or the size of government.

Québec’s conservatism is cultural. It isn’t what we would call “social conservatism” as it’s generally understood. Thus, the traditional social conservative issues, from abortion to euthanasia and religious education in public schools, are not part of this conservatism. But that does not mean that religion doesn’t play a unique and important role in Québec’s particularistic conservatism.

Québec today is one of the most secular places in the world, but just over a century ago it was arguably the most Catholic place on the planet. This religious heritage remains evident everywhere in Québec, from its ubiquitous and beautiful empty churches, to street names, metro stations, statues, and icons. Québec church attendance is among the lowest in any province.

Québec’s conservatism is distinct, particularistic, and rooted in a desire to preserve its identity

When I lived in Montréal, I realized this very quickly. Mass attendees at the church I attended mostly comprised elderly people, immigrants, and non-Québécois. I lived close to St Joseph’s Oratory, and it seemed like the only people there for devotional reasons were foreign tourists, never locals. Catholicism in Québec has been transformed into “notre patrimoine” as opposed to a living religion that people practice, but it still plays an important role, alongside language, in Québécois self-understanding. It’s an entirely secularized heritage, a dead Catholicism that has been transformed into a cultural as opposed to living spiritual attachment.

The most interesting part about it is how this “religion as heritage” identity has combined with, in the name of modern Québec values, pursuing a watered-down version of French style laïcité, religious neutrality most vividly seen in Bill-21. But it even included taking down the crucifix hung in the Québec National Assembly that had been put there in 1936 (a different crucifix) by Maurice Duplessis. The crucifix is now displayed as an “artifact” at the National Assembly, a wonderful symbol of what le patrimoine Catholique means today.

Protecting the French language, le patrimoine Catholique, and cultural distinctiveness achieved through a culturally conservative agenda and provincial autonomy within Canada – these are the pillars of Québec’s distinct conservatism today.

An Impossible Triangulation

Hopefully you can see why Québec’s conservatism is distinct from conservatism elsewhere in Canada. It isn’t just “conservatisme,” it’s a distinct and particularistic conservatism rooted in Québec’s identity and desire to preserve itself.

This isn’t news to anyone that knows or has spent much time in Québec. But there is still a prevailing attitude among many professional and casual conservatives that these voters really should be voting CPC-Conservative federally. The Conservative pitch to Québec voters has generally been a bit more nuanced than this; to promise to respect its cultural distinctiveness by staying out of and respecting Québec’s autonomy on issues like Bill-21.

But if my depiction of Québec’s conservatism here is correct, it’s unsurprising that this pitch doesn’t work, and the Conservatives lost out to the Bloc in 2019. The Bloc could much more reliably promise to actively protect Québec culture and autonomy by taking a stand as the party of Québec nationalists.

For the Conservatives to appeal to these voters, they would have to engage in a zero-sum triangulation move that would ultimately end up costing them elsewhere. Take for example Bill-21. While there are undoubtedly plenty of grassroots conservatives who would be quite happy to see the CPC support Bill-21, to do so would hurt the Conservatives with religious and minority voters in crucial seats. It’s also just something they shouldn’t do in my view.

Polling helps illustrate this. A majority of Canadians (59% in this poll) disapprove of Bill-21, but in Québec a bigger majority (64%) support the bill. Adopting positions like this to appeal to Québec nationalists would actively alienate voters elsewhere that the Conservatives cannot afford to lose.

Knowing this, the Conservatives in 2019 tried to thread the needle, and remain neutral on the bill while promising to respect Québec’s autonomy on the matter. But this illustrates the unique challenge they face pursuing these voters the only way they can, and why this doesn’t hurt other parties the same way.

Within Québec there is also a divide over Bill-21. The bill is extremely popular with francophones outside of Montréal, but opposed by anglophones and Montrealers. The Conservatives are never ever going to be winning seats on the island of Montréal, so they are competing not primarily with the Liberals, but with the Bloc for votes and seats. The Bloc, not burdened by needing to pursue voters elsewhere, have a competitive advantage and can fully embrace this cultural conservatism in a way the Conservatives cannot. The Liberals meanwhile, whose stronghold is on the island of Montréal, can hoover up votes of those Montrealers and anglophones not supportive of the bill.

The Bloc and the Liberals benefit from this realignment, the Conservatives are caught in the middle, pursuing culturally conservative voters who they can only appeal to by offering autonomy, without directly championing and promoting Québec cultural conservatism like the Bloc can. This is why these voters preferred the Bloc over the Conservatives and will probably continue to do so.

A Radical Proposal

Conservatives are caught between a rock and a hard place, but an unlikely, wildly improbable idea could solve this problem.

The Conservatives should support the creation of a provincial Conservative party that could replace the Bloc as the champion of Québec nationalists and capture these culturally conservative nationalist voters.

This would have to be done from the ground up, not by the Conservative party, but by conservatives in Québec deciding this was in their interest. The arrangement would involve something like the Conservatives not running candidates in Québec, and the two parties, though separate, aligning and working together in parliament and able to form governments together.

Canada wouldn’t be the first country to do this: the arrangement between the CDU/CSU in Germany/Bavaria could serve as a model of what this arrangement might look like. And if you think about it, supporting a separate party would be a powerful recognition by the Conservatives of the uniqueness of Québec, and an affirmation of our national heritage as a community of communities, one that signals Canada’s commitment to serious pluralism within its borders.

The brand of conservatism the CPC offers elsewhere is never going to appeal widely in Québec

There’s no way the Bloc could ever serve this role in Québec, given their history and alignment with the PQ provincially. They may be able to harness the cultural nationalist francophone voters in Québec given the limited options for these voters right now, but the Bloc are still ultimately a social democratic nationalist and separatist party that will never become a natural ally for the CPC. The goal of the CPC has to be to find a way to render the Bloc obsolete with a federalist nationalist centre-right party they could work closely with to fulfil the desires of this large, culturally conservative, conceivably Canada-content voting bloc.

There are three direct electoral advantages this would give the Conservatives:

  1. The most obvious advantage is that it would allow the Conservatives to indirectly tap into this hidden reserve of small-c conservative voters, ones that the CPC as it is currently constituted will never be able to fully capture with just the current provincial branch office. It would enable the Conservatives to focus on winning seats elsewhere, then work with this Québec Conservative party to govern. At times there would be tensions and frictions, but this would still be a massive improvement on the current arrangement of just not winning and having trouble forming a federal government in the first place.
  2. Perhaps even more importantly, by winning large numbers of seats in Québec, this party could deny the Liberals easy paths to majorities through Québec. The Liberals generally form government on the back not just of their stronghold on the island of Montréal, but by winning across Québec, as well often benefitting from vote splitting. By denying the Liberals many of these seats, this party would make the path to government much more challenging for the Liberals.
  3. Even if the Québec Conservative party had tensions with and was only loosely working with the CPC, it would still give the Conservatives something they haven’t ever had in parliament – a natural ally. They wouldn’t align on every issue, even if they worked closely together and every voter in Québéc and elsewhere understood this, but the parties would still recognize shared interests in a positive-sum coalitional way. All the other major parties, including the Bloc, see the Conservatives as their primary rival and are not natural partners for the Conservatives. This would change that.

I can already hear the cries of outrage at this idea, and I’m sure plenty would see this as an abandonment of national aspirations by the Conservatives, and that is exactly how it would be portrayed in the media.

The best argument against this would be to suggest that the Conservatives should instead pick a Québécois leader, one who can appeal to Québécois voters but also win elsewhere. Perhaps someone like Gérard Deltell.

If Conservatives are going to “solve” the Québec problem, it is time for new ideas

I’d be intrigued by this, after all the old Progressive Conservatives under Diefenbaker in 1958 and Mulroney in 1984 and 1988 did win big in Québec. But the difference in all these outcomes is that they were pre-Bloc, which was founded in 1991. Since 1991 Québec has swung between the Bloc and the Liberals, with one exception in the 2011 election when the province had a short-lived fling with the NDP. The other possibility, if this bold idea somehow became real, is that if the right person came along in Québéc that could simultaneously appeal to Québéc and other voters across the country, why should a broad minded and patriotic joint caucus not want this beau ideal leading it? Given the principles of the CPC, a Conservative out of Quebec committed to preserving the country could as easily lead it as a CPC-badged politician.

Liberal conservatism isn’t enough

As long as there is a party that can hoover up the cultural conservative nationalist voters in Québec, the chances of a federal Conservative breakthrough are slim. The brand of conservatism the CPC offers elsewhere is never ever going to appeal widely in Québec, and when the “conservatism” that is on offer to Québec voters is a choice between this anglo-style liberal conservatism versus a cultural and nationalists conservatism, that can actually promise to defend and not just respect Québéc’s distinctiveness, the CPC is going to lose out.

It’s not that bilingualism wouldn’t still matter in a leader (it would) or that the federal party should all of a sudden become anti-Québec (it absolutely shouldn’t), but a radical move like this might allow the Conservatives to finally capitalize on the caqiste realignment in Québec, and change the political landscape.

Currently this is no more likely to happen in Canada that the separate Scottish Tory Party Murdo Fraser canvassed happened in the UK. Canadian Conservatives, however, have very little to lose, and a lot to gain, by considering something like this. Québec is distinct, and the challenges the Conservatives face in Québec are unique. If Conservatives are ever going to “solve” the Québec problem, all the old thinking has been proven to do is not work. Let’s think again.

This piece originally appeared in The Dominion.

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