Chris Selley: So, how did all that pandering to Quebec work out for you?


Les Anglais injuriés de la place qu'a pris le Québec dans la campagne fédérale

REGINA — Andrew Scheer seems to think all the self-abasement was worth it. Twenty-five years after the Progressive Conservatives fractured into three chunks over special treatment for Quebec, Scheer made a lavish, explicit appeal not just to Quebecers but nationalist Quebecers: a single tax return administered by the province, more control over immigration and culture, a proudly hands-off approach from the federal government to new restrictions on civil servants wearing religious symbols on the job — this from a party, and a leader, for whom protecting religious freedom both here and abroad is a unique selling point.

And what did the Tories get? A third-place finish behind the resurgent Bloc Québécois, and the Liberals, who pandered to Quebec interests the least of any party (which isn’t saying that much, admittedly). The party won two fewer seats and slightly less of the popular vote than Stephen Harper did in 2015. Harper won as many seats and considerably more of the popular vote in both 2008 and 2006.

“We’re going to be looking, analyzing what didn’t work (in Quebec) and work even harder next time,” Scheer said at a brief press conference at a Regina hotel on Tuesday morning. “We’re going to redouble our efforts.”

The mind boggles. Short of cracking open the constitution, what the hell else is there to offer?

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Scheer has insisted throughout the campaign that Conservatives are united in supporting this most asymmetrical of federalist visions. But it was tough not to notice during Scheer’s Monday-night concession speech that his appeal to “la nation Québécoise” came only in the langue de Molière

“We will continue to work for you,” Scheer averred in French. “Conservative values are Quebecois values and Quebecois values are Conservative values: Freedom of expression, a smaller government, and recognizing that a dollar spent by the person who earned it is better (than the government taxing it and spending it). These are Quebec values.”

If that’s true (and I’m not at all sure it is), then surely all these ideological contortions shouldn’t be necessary. And if the contortions are futile, then why risk the embarrassment?

To be fair, it’s certainly not just Scheer and the Conservatives who need to ask themselves these questions. They can at least appeal to traditional party positions on the division of powers, provincial rights and decentralization. The New Democrats … cannot.

To the extent the NDP is still a thing in Quebec, boasting just 11 per cent of the popular vote and returning just one MP to Ottawa, it is not a thing that needs to be turning itself inside out over something like Bill 21. Their lone Quebec MP, Alexandre Boulerice, represents the Montreal riding of Rosemont-La-Petite-Prairie. Provincially, that’s the territory of the far-left Québec Solidaire, which opposes Bill 21. QS also opposes federal meddling in Quebec affairs, of course, but there has to be a reasonably happy medium for the NDP to achieve without constantly walking on eggs. If Trudeau can win Quebec seats off the Island of Montreal, when everyone there expects his government to join court challenges against Bill 21, then the NDP should be able to compete as well. And if it can’t, more pandering demonstrably isn’t the answer.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh campaigns in Montreal on Oct. 16, 2019. Sebastien St-Jean/AFP via Getty Images

Leader Jagmeet Singh talked a good game about trying to sway hearts and minds on minority rights rather than hectoring nationalist Quebecers. But that presumes Bill 21 was a good-faith bill gone wrong — that a bunch of principled secularists wandered down the wrong path and ended up harming people in a way that they just don’t quite understand. That’s not what it is, and Singh knows that very well. Bill 21 is a law to put hijab-wearing Muslim women in their place. Sikhs, Jews and anyone else who ends up shut out of the civil service are just collateral damage. If multicultural icon/villain Trudeau can win more seats in Quebec than the Bloc, there is no reason for any other party not to call it as they see it.

The basic state of affairs is this: For no particularly good or explicable reason, Quebecers have shifted back to supporting an explicitly separatist party, at a time when one conservative and one social-democratic party were essentially offering them everything they wanted plus the proverbial “seat at the table” in Ottawa. The answer isn’t to pitch nationalist harder, if that’s even possible. The answer is to stand on basic principles and let the chips fall where they may — because no one knows how to predict it anyway.

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