Conservative leadership candidates gather in Quebec City for final race debate

The Conservative leadership candidates will gather tonight for the final official debate of the race – a French-language competition that will test the candidates’ language skills as they battle for the top job.

Tonight’s debate in Laval, Que. is the last campaign event where candidates will have the chance to convince potential voters to sign up for a party before the June 3 deadline. Anyone who wants to vote to choose the next leader of the Conservative Party must be on the party’s membership list by that date to receive a ballot for the September 10 vote.

Tonight, the six candidates will make a direct appeal to French-speaking Quebecers – an electoral bloc that does not generally lean towards the Conservatives in federal elections. Although there are relatively few French-speaking Conservative MPs, these party members will have a lot to say in the final outcome of this leadership race.

The last two debates have been difficult at times as the main candidates – Conservative MPs Pierre Poilievre and Leslyn Lewis, Brampton, Ont. Mayor Patrick Brown and former Quebec premier Jean Charest have traded barbs on everything from abortion to bitcoin.

The pointed personal exchanges revealed just how much animosity 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 in calling for party unity at a time when Tory divisions have never also looked sharp.

Poilievre, right, gestures as Charest listens to the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate in English in Edmonton on May 11. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

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 took part in the 2020 leadership race, stumbled into the French debate last time reading notes.

Rudy Husny, a prominent Quebec conservative and former staffer of former prime minister Stephen Harper, said the lack of language “will make the debate less interesting, obviously.”

“It’s a problem and it’s not good for the image of the Conservative Party in Quebec when you have candidates who are not perfectly bilingual,” Husny said.

With the unilingual Anglophone candidates discarded, Charest and Poilievre are poised to dominate the debate.

Husny said the race in Quebec is already shaping up to be a competition between these two candidates, although Brown has done well in some ethnic communities in the Montreal area.

French debate is ‘critical’ – former Scheer staffer

Marc-André Leclerc, a former staffer of former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, said there was a “question mark” over Brown for French-speaking voters. His language skills are largely unknown, Leclerc said.

“It is essential for all party members in Quebec — our leader must speak in French and debate in French. The debate in French during the federal campaign is always critical. We want to see someone capable of fighting against Mr. Trudeau and Yves-François Blanchet. , he said, referring to the Prime Minister and the leader of the Bloc Québécois.

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 requires public servants to remove their religious attire at work – a controversial law that is still popular with many Quebecers.

Charest has also pledged to fight this law in court if elected.

“That’s a key question for all candidates. That’s going to be a big part of the debate,” Leclerc said.

Brown gestures during the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate in English in Edmonton on May 11. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Husny said Charest, who served as premier of Quebec for nine years, is a household name and expectations are especially high for him because “he’s playing at home.”

“Mr. Charest must issue a call to action to Quebecers who know him: become a member. That is his objective in this debate and for the next 10 days, [to] convince as many Quebecers as possible to get a card,” said Husny.

“It’s his way to victory. He needs good results in Quebec.”

Husny said Poilievre needed to stand out to an electorate who may know him less.

Husny said he expects Poilievre to replicate some of the talking points that were used by Éric Duhaime, the leader of the Conservative Party of Quebec.

The leader of the Conservative Party of Quebec, Eric Duhaime, speaks during a press conference at the Legislative Assembly of Quebec on June 18, 2021. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

This small party has grown dramatically since its leader criticized public health measures during the pandemic – which Poilievre has also done.

“You’ll hear the words ‘liberty’ and ‘liberty’ a lot. That will be part of the message he wants to send in tomorrow’s debate, targeting the people that Mr. Duhaime has already attracted,” Husny said of Poilievre. .

Duhaime has grown the party – which has no formal ties to the federal Conservatives – from a membership base of just 500 to more than 70,000 since he took over as leader last year.

Husny said all federal candidates are eager to tap into those Duhaime supporters, who are mostly concentrated in the conservative-leaning Quebec region.

Members of the Conservative Party of Quebec have helped decide the last two Conservative leadership races.

Andrew Scheer, then leader of the federal Conservative Party, speaks at the Nova Scotia Conservative Party leadership convention in Halifax on October 27, 2018. (Ted Pritchard/The Canadian Press)

Andrew Scheer, a proponent of supply management, won his race in 2017 in part because of its appeal to Quebec dairy farmers.

Erin O’Toole edged favorite Peter MacKay in the last leadership race because of her organizational strength in Quebec ridings where there were relatively few Conservative MPs.

O’Toole won over a bloc of gun owners lured by his promise to ease federal gun restrictions.

Although some ridings in the province have only a small number of map Conservatives, their votes have an outsized influence in a system that gives almost equal weight to all regions of the country.

“Quebec is very, very critical,” said Leclerc, Scheer’s former staffer.

“O’Toole did very well in Quebec and that was a big surprise for 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 good ground. Game.”

Leclerc said some prominent conservative organizers who backed O’Toole, like Quebec Senator Leo Housakos, are now part of Team Poilievre.

“For the conservative ‘true blues’ in Quebec, Poilievre has a lot of appeal. For many of these Quebecers, Mr. Charest is not an ally, rather he is an enemy,” Leclerc said.

Leclerc said Charest was a frequent enemy of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he was in office; there were rows 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 premier, Leclerc said.

“People don’t forget that and that’s why some people are angry. Charest needs a big, big, big result and a big performance in Quebec,” he said. “Otherwise he is out.”