Harper’s Quebec Legacy
Stephen Harper pulled off a rare feat in Quebec during his decade as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Harper started off barely speaking French above the level of Joe Clark in 2004 and reached the point of near fluency in 2015.
Harper was rewarded in turn by an increasing base of support from Quebec. Even looking at the perfect storm symbolized by the Orange Wave of Jack Layton’s NDP Quebec majority in 2011, Harper still grew his support in Quebec just as he had done throughout his all his elections as Conservative leader.
Harper grew the base of support in Quebec from zero seats in the province in 2004 to a dozen seats won in 2015. Most importantly the sovereignty movement was essentially dormant throughout the Harper years and remains so today.
Chantal Hébert recently wrote of Harper’s success on the Quebec file in the Toronto Star:
“In a text published in the magazine L’actualité on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Parti Québécois’ short-lived 2012 victory, former Harper adviser Carl Vallée argues the Conservatives deserve significant credit for having contributed, with their policies, to bringing the Quebec conversation in line with that of the rest of Canada.”
Harpers Conservative policies appealed primarily to les bleues in Quebec City and the surrounding region. This region of the province will be a significant part of any plan for the Conservatives to return to power nationally.
The Bernier Effect
It is not surprising that Maxime Bernier’s riding is in this area. Vallée explained Harper’s approach to Quebec was successful in large part because it was contrary to the Liberal’s approach:
“After the PQ formed a minority government in 2012, Vallée says Harper was urged by the civil service to become more proactive in showcasing Canada and the federal government in Quebec. But the then-prime minister was wary of strategies that he found reminiscent of the failed Liberal sponsorship program. Instead he opted to decline to take whatever bait premier Marois threw his way.”
Harper succeeded in Quebec in a manner that stayed true to the conservative belief in smaller government. Harper combined this small government belief with successful measures to create common ground between conservatives. This included Conservatives both outside Quebec and that slice of the Quebec electorate open to core conservative messaging on economic issues.
As outlined by the Montreal Gazette shortly after the 2015 election:
One of the most underrated aspects to Harper’s record was his stance on Quebec. There are two major factors, as I see it, which allowed Harper to help keep the sovereignist threat at bay: a classically conservative, decentralized approach to federal governance and, as I wrote last month, the late realization that Rest of Canada Conservatives and Quebec nationalists are not as far apart on many issues as it may seem.
Harper has left the Conservative Party of Canada in a strong position in Quebec.
It is a positive sign that the final two names on the leadership ballot, Bernier and Andrew Scheer, are unquestionably fluent in French.
Scheer can work with Bernier to add a few seats in the province in 2019 as part of a durable Conservative coalition that will give the party a real chance to compete for power in every federal election. Canadians of all political persuasions, and especially conservatives, owe a debt of gratitude to Stephen Harper for the manner in which he dealt with Quebec during his decade in power.