Shortly after the 1980 federal election, Montreal lawyer Michel Cogger says that he attended a mass during which the priest asked the congregation to pray for the underprivileged, the alcoholic and the lame. “Don’t forget the Tories,” shouted a parishioner, who shared the common view that the party’s need was equally great. Today the Tories still hold only one of the province’s 75 federal seats, but for the first time since 1958—when the Conservatives won 50 Quebec seats in the John Diefenbaker landslide—there are signs of a Tory resurgence in the Liberal bastion.
Indeed, Tory nomination meetings, which in the past could sometimes not be held because of the lack of members, are now crowded. Last week, in the small Eastern Townships village of East Angus, more than 1,200 Tory supporters packed the local hockey arena for the biggest candidate nomination meeting in the history of MéganticCompton-Stanstead riding. And earlier nomination meetings in Trois-Rivières and the Laurentian Mountains riding of Labelle were equally well attended. As Cogger, a friend and adviser to party Leader Brian Mulroney, put it, “For the first time, being a Tory in Quebec is
something more than being the target of jokes at cocktail parties.”
The renewal of Conservative hopes for an electoral breakthrough in Quebec coincided with the ascension of a native son to the federal party leadership last year. One of the first things Mulroney did was to step up an organizing drive started by former leader Joe Clark; in the past two years party membership in the province has jumped to 75,000 from 7,000. Conservative organizers claim 15,000 Quebecers have become Tories since Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced his retirement plans Feb. 29.
Mulroney, with his fluent, idiomatic French and his frequent references to his upbringing in the remote north shore lumber town of Baie Comeau, already seems to be replacing the Liberal leader as the province’s hope for a strong voice in Ottawa. Many francophones acknowledge Mulroney as “un de nousaut” (one of us). Many Quebecers believe that Mulroney’s strong support of official bilingualism, serving as a contrast to the softer posture of Liberal leadership aspirant John Turner, has further helped the Tory cause. Looking forward to a possible contest between Mulroney and the Toronto lawyer Cogger said, “I think we can have ourselves a lot of fun putting the boy from Baie Comeau up
against the hero of Bay Street.” Many Quebec Tories actually believe that the party could win 25 to 30 seats in the next federal election. If they succeed in reaching that daunting number, it will be one of the great political comebacks in Canadian history. In 1980 the Conservatives finished behind the fringe Rhinocerous Party, a group specializing in slapstick politics, in two ridings. Quebec City lawyer Gary Ouellet, a longtime Tory and a member of the party’s six-man candidate search committee, said, “There were times when I used to look out my office window and wonder whether there was a single Conservative left in town besides myself.” Today, Ouellet and other party organizers claim they are finding new converts almost everywhere they look. Polls put the Tories’ popular support at between 30 and 40 per cent in most areas of the province. One fertile source of recruits is the provincial Liberal party. Provincial leader Robert Bourassa, an old and close friend of Mulroney’s, has quietly told the party that members may work for any party they wish. In turn, some Liberal back-benchers have told their organizers to co-operate fully with the Conservatives. In Trudeau’s riding of Mount Royal dozens of provincial Liberals are helping the Tories.
The same enthusiasm is evident in
the rush of prospective candidates. Fernand Roberge, who heads the search committee for candidates, said he has received more than 300 “serious” applications. The PCs are steering clear of too many big-name candidates, either by design or because of a lack of prospects. But the party has made overtures to some key Quebecers, including: Lawrence Hanigan, president of the Montreal Transit Commission; Lucien Bouchard, the Quebec government’s chief labor negotiator and a former Laval University classmate of Mulroney’s; Jérome Choquette, former provincial justice minister; and Nick Auf de Maur, a Montreal journalist and city councillor.
Deciding who will run may prove easier than deciding where Mulroney himself should face the voters. Quebec Tories say it is virtually certain that Mulroney will run in the province and give up the Central Nova riding that first elected him to the Commons last August. But some organizers feel the move into more difficult electoral territory would force Mulroney to spend too much time campaigning in Quebec, causing him to neglect the rest of the country. If he does run in Quebec, the most likely choice is Brome-Missisquoi in the Eastern Townships, a riding that Conservative Heward Grafftey held until his defeat in 1980. The other choice is Manicouagan on the North Shore, which includes Mulroney’s home town.
But despite the Tories’ newfound enthusiasm, some problems remain. Earlier this year Mulroney’s office had to admonish a group of former Clark supporters, led by Clark’s former Quebec campaign chairman, Marcel Danis, to stop working secretly to capture key nominations in order to maintain their influence within the party. More recently, Gabriel Fontaine, a former Clark supporter and the party’s candidate in the Levis riding in the Quebec City area, said the party could win only 12 to 15 seats. He added that “in each of those cases, it will be essentially a personal victory” based on the strength of the individual candidate, not the party. But Bernard Roy, Mulroney’s chief Quebec organizer, has been working hard to bring former Clark backers to the leader’s camp, and Conservatives credit him with easing party divisiveness.
The party’s private and public politics will be tested over the next few months as the Tories gear up their “preelection campaign.” Mulroney plans to spend more time in the province trying to capitalize on his personal popularity. At the same time, his followers, buoyed by the polls and by the flock of new party members, will be campaigning hard. For the time being at least, Quebec Tories no longer consider themselves among the underprivileged of the province.
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