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Tom Mulcair: The GTA and Quebec still stand in the way of the Pierre Poilievre juggernaut


There are two steep hills that Pierre Poilievre will have to climb if he hopes to turn his good polling numbers into victory: the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Quebec.

The 60 or so seats in the GTA and the 78 seats of La Belle Province have been elusive prizes since the creation of the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper.

In 2021, the Liberals ran the table in Toronto, Mississauga and Brampton. This time around, things promise to be very different. Clever policy work, deep data and an open approach to ethnocultural communities and their concerns could open the floodgates for Poilievre.

One senior Sikh leader in the GTA, whom I’ve known for years, recently confided to me that many in his community are preparing to move their votes to Poilievre. Incredible leg work by Conservative troops is starting to pay dividends with other large voting blocks as well.

Harper won three elections for his newly-minted Conservatives. In the 2011 campaign that provided his only majority, he largely abandoned all hope in Quebec and concentrated his efforts elsewhere. His breakthrough in the GTA was one of the keys to that victory. Winning only a handful of Quebec seats was seen as anything but a problem for him.

Of course during that 2011 election, the NDP had the “Orange Wave” breakthrough in Quebec that Jack Layton and I had spent four years building. The Liberals were reduced to just a few seats in a province they’d often dominated -- and taken for granted.

File photo of then NDP leader Jack Layton, right, with then deputy leader Tom Mulcair following his address to members of his Quebec caucus at an NDP convention in Montreal on May 28, 2011 (Graham Hughes / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Even in the GTA, the NDP had a sizable number of wins, contributing to the unprecedented crushing defeat of Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals.

About the only thing that could stop the Poilievre juggernaut in its tracks in the GTA would be an umpteenth deal between Trudeau and Singh. Why not? They’ve been shacked up for two years and are now neck-and-neck in the polls.

A form of non-competition agreement could seriously upset the Conservative calculus in the Greater Toronto Area.

As the next electoral rendezvous approaches, Poilievre seems to be imitating Harper’s approach with regard to Quebec: benign neglect. Yes, he’s visited several times. No, his numbers aren’t nearly as good there as they are in the rest of Canada. He’s clearly not planning to waste a lot of treasure and time there.

Poilievre’s charms seem to be translating very badly in Quebec, especially among women voters who just don’t like the guy.

Poilievre will be content to get what he can there and it’s not going to be impossible for him to increase his current count of nine seats. Mulroney’s passing has allowed many to recall that his massive majorities included smashing wins in Quebec. He was a native son, considered one of “nous” and it paid handsomely for his Progressive Conservatives.

Poilievre doesn’t have anything near the ability of Mulroney to talk with Quebecers. His French, while competent, remains stilted. He’s learned the words but not the music. He steadfastly refuses invitations to Tout le monde en parle, the phenomenally popular and influential talk show, continuing a collective boycott by all previous Conservative leaders (Harper, Scheer and O’Toole). Their results showed that the snub wasn’t appreciated.

Current wishful thinking amongst Conservative Quebec operatives (and there are several really good ones) is that many Quebecers will opt to be on the winning side if it becomes clear Poilievre is about to form a government. In my experience, nothing could be less sure. They are far more likely to hold their noses and vote Liberal in the primarily Bloc-dominated areas outside the large cities, in order to stymie the Conservatives, once Poilievre’s agenda becomes clear.

During the Conservative convention in Quebec City last September, former Harper minister Peter MacKay made an impassioned plea for allowing more Western fossil fuels to flow to the Maritimes for eventual export.

This flies in the face of a determined decision by Francois Legault against any exploration or extraction of oil or gas in Quebec and his specific edict that there was no “social acceptability” for pipeline projects like Energy East. This is not just a line drawn in the sand, it’s a tripwire. Legault recently received an award from Al Gore for his efforts. This isn’t negotiable. If Poilievre would dare promise to do in Quebec what Trudeau did in British-Columbia, shove the pipeline down the province’s throat, there would be an unprecedented breakdown in the constitutional order. This is not the stuff of sophomore debates. It’s the big leagues and it’s not clear that Poilievre is prepared for it.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, left, meets Quebec Premier Francois Legault, May 23, 2023 at the premier’s office in Quebec City (Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

If Poilievre inadvertently stumbles over that tripwire, he could easily send Quebecers flocking back to Trudeau’s Liberals in much larger numbers. There’s nothing more fickle than the Bloc Québécois vote. They know it. If a sense of peril takes hold in the electorate, the Liberals will benefit and the Bloc seat count could melt like snow under a hot spring sun.

In his own prepared remarks at that convention, Poilievre tiptoed around the pipeline issue. He didn’t contradict MacKay but he wasn’t so overt. That minuet, danced delicately around an issue where Quebec and much of the rest of Canada are at loggerheads, shows an increasing Conservative sensitivity to issues there and an enhanced skill set to deal with them.

That’s an easy trick to pull off on a convention floor. In the cut and thrust of a campaign, Poilievre won’t get to dance; he'll have to give clear answers, something he hates doing even more than Trudeau.

On so-called identity issues, in particular Quebec language and immigration questions, Poilievre has no clear idea as to where, and where not, to tread. He blunders into personal insults against Montreal and Quebec City’s popular mayors, calling them outright “incompetent."

Heady brew from someone with so little experience himself. During the campaign, all lights will be on him and he’ll have no MacKay to help him play good cop, bad cop. It’s harder to surf when your wave turns to foam.

Legault has been picking fights with Trudeau on the family reunification category of immigration, saying he wants to wrest control from the feds. On language, he’s been shamelessly pandering to the fanatical wing of Quebec nationalists, overtly attacking English language universities, in a race to the bottom against a resurgent Parti Quebecois.

Issues like Bill 21, the law that openly discriminates against religious minorities, will be part of the election campaign as they make their way to the Supreme Court. Following the advice of the Conservative Grand Vizir, Stephen Harper, Poilievre will do his best to continue to say nothing about anything…other than the handful of pet issues he hopes will get him elected.

Trudeau has been vexingly weak in dealing with Legault on these identity issues. He has a scheduled meeting with Legault this Friday. It will be fascinating to see if Trudeau begins to change tone. A “Just watch me” moment could work wonders.

Sure, housing, groceries and the carbon tax may help Poilievre’s polling numbers now, but Canadians will want to know what stuff he’s made of when defending core Canadian values like respect for human rights. After all, he’s supposed to be all about freedom.

This is a fascinating time in Canadian politics. A brash, inexperienced young leader looking to take the crown from the former champion of brash inexperience, who’s no longer that young. Poilievre may well win if Trudeau is foolish enough to stick around for one more round but make no mistake, there’s many a slip between cup and lip and Poilievre may be celebrating too early.

Beyond facile one-liners and slogans, at some point Poilievre is going to actually have to lay out his vision for the nation’s future. So far, it’s a blank slate that his adversaries will begin to fill in, if he doesn’t do so himself.

Canada is a big, complex country that requires thoughtful governance. Poilievre is a master of superficial solutions to wicked problems. He’s going to balance the budget without cutting social programs. Build houses by short circuiting gatekeepers. Eliminate the price on carbon while denying that he’s a climate change denier. Make your groceries cheaper. Sure…

It’s a lot tougher than that and Canadians have every right to ask serious questions. It’s about time they started getting serious answers from Poilievre.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017




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