Conservatives look to Quebec strength ahead of return to Parliament
QUEBEC CITY -- The Conservative Party is staking out territory in Quebec this week, holding its winter caucus meeting in the only province in which it gained seats in the 2015 federal election.
As MPs and senators gathered in Quebec City, the party added celebrity investor Kevin O'Leary to its list of official leadership candidates. He becomes the 14th person to join an already competitive race to lead the Conservative Party.
O'Leary, who has drawn significant attention since first speculating a year ago that he might run, isn't at the caucus gathering. But he's still the subject of much of the conversation in the hallways outside the caucus meetings, which will be attended by the nine leadership candidates who are current MPs.
The Quebec City meeting is also an opportunity to remind francophones about the 12 MPs from the province -- more than double the number of Quebec seats the Conservatives had before the 2015 election. Much of the media coverage over the last few weeks has emphasized that several of the leadership contestants speak little to no French, particularly earlier this month following the candidates' French-language debate, which was also in Quebec City.
Interim Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose kicked off the caucus with a press conference in which she accused the federal Liberal government of abandoning the region.
But while Ambrose opened her prepared remarks in French, she struggled with the language when responding to reporters' questions, and had trouble understanding some of the French-language queries, in two cases turning to MPs from Quebec to respond.
Ambrose says the party has solid support in Quebec City, adding people across the country, worried about their jobs, are receptive to the Conservatives.
"There's a lot of work for the opposition to do and our message is received well, here and in other parts of the country, in English and in French," she said.
'Real test' for French ability in debate against Trudeau
The province is an important target for any federal political party, holding 78 of 338 seats in the House.
Conservative finance critic Gérard Deltell, who represents Quebec City's Louis-Saint-Laurent riding, said the next leader has to speak French.
"For the last 50 years, this country is bilingual. So this is the least that we can ask people who want to run this country," Deltell told reporters.
Leadership candidates in the race today should be able to answer a question in a scrum, do an interview and chat with Conservative Party members in both official languages, he said.
"But the real test will be 2019 to have a face-to-face debate with Justin Trudeau and to say in French how wrong he is," Deltell said.
Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier, who is one of the party's Quebec MPs, says it's important the next leader be able to communicate with the 100 ridings in Canada that have sizable francophone populations.
"If we want to be back in government, I don't want to give a 100-riding advantage to [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau," Bernier said ahead of Ambrose's opening press conference.
The meetings started Wednesday morning and continue through Friday. The caucus will close with a press conference Friday afternoon.