Brian Mulroney, the last conservative prime minister to taste major victory in Quebec

OTTAWA — Ask Brian Mulroney's chief political rival about the former prime minister's greatest success, and the answer runs through Quebec.

Jean Chrétien cites Mulroney's 1984 breakthrough, which delivered the Progressive Conservatives the largest majority win in Canadian history.

It also produced 58 of Quebec's 75 seats at the time, an impressive feat for a conservative party.

The former prime minister, who died Thursday at 84, knew he had achieved something remarkable when he took the stage the night of his election victory.

He promised a "new day for Quebec" in his speech and reflected on his decision to seek a seat in the province, forgoing the Nova Scotia one he secured in a 1983 byelection.

Addressing the crowd in languid French, the fully bilingual Mulroney said he entered Quebec politics "from the front door," choosing to do so in his home riding.

The room erupted in applause.

Mulroney was a son of Quebec, Chrétien said — but an anglophone, which put him in the minority.

Born in the smelting town of Baie-Comeau on Quebec's North Shore, he was the first Quebecer to lead the Progressive Conservatives in the 20th century.

Not since him has a conservative leader come close to winning over Quebecers: the modern-day party has yet to best its 2015 showing of 12 seats in the province.

After the last federal election in 2021, in which Mulroney made an appearance for then-Conservative leader Erin O'Toole in Quebec, the party finished with just 10 seats in the province.

Political strategist Rudy Husny says Mulroney's passion was one of the key factors that endeared him to Quebecers.

"In Quebec, people are more emotional, especially when they vote," he said in an interview Friday.

"Especially when they listen and they watch leaders, they want to see passion … and when you looked at Mulroney, that's what you had.

"You could see all his passion, all his energy."

Mulroney's subsequent election win in 1988 was the last time a conservative party sent a member of Parliament to Ottawa from Montreal, Husny added.

The modern-day Conservative party's support in the province now lies mainly around Quebec City, although the party sees fertile ground in the suburbs around Montreal.

Before winning his 1984 majority, Mulroney had pitched himself as the answer the former party needed to break its years-long freeze-out in Quebec.

The party's time in the Opposition wilderness was because of its failure to win over French-speaking parts of the country, he said in a 1980 speech.

For today's Conservatives, it remains a challenge.

Stephen Harper's majority victory in 2011 came about largely because of a dominant performance in the suburbs around Toronto, winning just five seats in Quebec.

Harper's successors as leader, including O'Toole and Andrew Scheer, fared no better in winning over French-speaking voters.

Enter Pierre Poilievre, a fluently bilingual leader who was raised by a father from a French-speaking community in Saskatchewan.

His wife, Anaida, grew up in Montreal, the city to which her family migrated from Venezuela when she was a child.

It's a personal history that is expected to hold Poilievre in good stead as he seeks to rekindle Conservative support in Quebec in the next federal election.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2024.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press