Conservative leadership candidates will gather tonight for the final official debate of the race — a French-language contest that will challenge the candidates’ languages skills as they fight for the top job.
Tonight’s debate in Laval, Que. is the last campaign event where candidates will have a chance to convince would-be voters to take out party memberships before the June 3 deadline. Anyone who wants to cast a ballot to choose the next Conservative Party leader must be on the party’s membership list by that date to receive a ballot for the Sept. 10 vote.
Tonight, the six candidates will make a direct appeal to francophone Quebecers — a voting bloc that typically doesn’t lean Conservative in federal elections. While there may be relatively few francophone Conservative members, these party members will have a lot of say in the final outcome of this leadership race.
The last two debates have been testy at times as the leading contenders — Conservative MPs Pierre Poilievre and Leslyn Lewis, Brampton, Ont. Mayor Patrick Brown and former Quebec premier Jean Charest — have traded barbs over everything from abortion to bitcoin.
The pointed personal exchanges have revealed just how much bad blood there is between Poilievre, a more solidly right-wing candidate, and his centrist opponents Brown and Charest.
Two of the other candidates in this race — Conservative MP Scott Aitchison and Independent Ontario MPP Roman Baber — have taken a more conciliatory approach by calling for party unity at a time when Conservative divisions have never seemed so stark.
Tonight’s debate will be different from previous campaign exchanges between the candidates because three of them — Aitchison, Baber and Lewis — do not speak French.
Lewis, who also ran in the 2020 leadership race, stumbled through the French debate last time by reading from notes.
Rudy Husny, a prominent Quebec Conservative and an ex-staffer to former prime minister Stephen Harper, said the language deficiency will “make the debate less interesting, obviously.”
“It’s an issue and it’s not good for the Conservative Party’s image in Quebec when you have candidates who aren’t perfectly bilingual,” Husny said.
With the unilingual anglophone candidates sidelined, Charest and Poilievre are poised to dominate the debate.
Husny said the race in Quebec was already shaping up to be a contest between these two candidates, although Brown has had a strong showing in some ethnic communities in the Montreal area.
French debate is ‘critical’ — former Scheer staffer
Marc-André Leclerc, an ex-staffer to former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, said there’s a “question mark” over Brown for francophone voters. His language skills are largely unknown, Leclerc said.
“It’s key for all party members in Quebec — our leader needs to talk in French and debate in French. The French debate during the federal campaign is always critical. We want to see someone able to fight against Mr. Trudeau and Yves-François Blanchet,” he said, referring to the prime minister and the Bloc Québécois leader.
Brown, who has aggressively courted ethnic and religious minority voters in this race, has also been a vocal opponent of Quebec’s Bill 21, which forces public servants to remove religious garb while on the job — a controversial law that is still popular with many Quebecers.
Charest also has vowed to fight that law in court if he’s elected.
“This is a key issue for all candidates. It’s going to be a big part of the debate,” Leclerc said.
Husny said Charest, who served as Quebec’s premier for nine years, is a known quantity and the expectations are particularly high for him because “he’s playing at home.”
“Mr. Charest needs to make a call to action to the people of Quebec who know him — take out a membership. That’s his objective in this debate and for the next 10 days, [to] convince as many Quebecers as he can to get a card,” said Husny.
“That’s his path to victory. He needs strong results in Quebec.”
Husny said Poilievre has to introduce himself to an electorate that may be less familiar with him.
Husny said he expects Poilievre to parrot some of the talking points that have been used by Éric Duhaime, the leader of the Conservative Party of Quebec.
That small party has seen dramatic growth since its leader criticized public health measures during the pandemic — something Poilievre also has done.
“You will hear the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ a lot. That will be part of the message he’ll want to send in the debate tomorrow, targeting the people who Mr. Duhaime has already attracted,” Husny said of Poilievre.
Duhaime has grown the party — which has no official ties to the federal Conservatives — from a membership base of just 500 to over 70,000 since taking over the leadership last year.
Husny said all of the federal contenders are eager to tap into those Duhaime supporters, who are mostly concentrated in the conservative-leaning Quebec City area.
Conservative Party members from Quebec have helped decide the last two Conservative leadership races.
Andrew Scheer, a proponent of supply management, won his race in 2017 in part because of his appeal among Quebec dairy farmers.
Erin O’Toole bested perceived front-runner Peter MacKay in the last leadership race because of his organizational strength in Quebec ridings where there were relatively few Conservative members.
O’Toole won over a bloc of firearms owners who were attracted to his promise to ease federal restrictions on guns.
While some of the province’s ridings have only a small number of card-carrying Conservatives, their votes have outsized influence in a system that gives nearly equal weight to every region of the country.
“Quebec is very, very critical,” said Leclerc, the former Scheer staffer.
“O’Toole did very well in Quebec and that was a big surprise to everyone, I think. Everyone thinks Quebecers are mostly progressive and that Peter MacKay was a perfect fit but O’Toole got a lot of support because he had a good ground game.”
Leclerc said some prominent Conservative organizers who backed O’Toole, like Quebec Sen. Leo Housakos, are now on Team Poilievre.
“For the ‘true blue’ Conservatives in Quebec, Poilievre has a lot of appeal. For a lot of these Quebecers, Mr. Charest is not an ally — he’s more of an enemy,” Leclerc said.
Leclerc said Charest was a frequent foe of former prime minister Stephen Harper while he was in office; there was squabbling between the two over a multi-billion dollar transfer payment and cuts to arts and culture funding. Charest also did little to support Scheer and O’Toole in their bids to become prime minister, Leclerc said.
“People don’t forget that and that’s why some people are mad. Charest needs a big, big, big result and a big performance in Quebec,” he said. “If not, he’s out.”