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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 he will say the answer runs through Quebec.

Jean Chrétien cites Mulroney's 1984 breakthrough, when the Progressive Conservatives won the largest majority in Canadian history and captured 58 of Quebec's 75 seats.

Mulroney, 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" and reflected on his decision not to run for the Nova Scotia riding he had secured in a 1983 byelection.

Addressing the crowd in languid French, the fully bilingual Mulroney said he entered Quebec politics "from the front door" 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. Quebec's flag was lowered Friday to mark his death.

No conservative leader since then has come close to winning over Quebecers: the modern-day party has never managed to win more than the 12 seats it took in 2015.

In the most recent federal election in 2021, former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole pledged to strike a special deal with Quebec and got praise from Premier Francois Legault.

But even Mulroney's endorsement of O'Toole was not enough, and the party won just 10 seats in Quebec.

Political strategist Rudy Husny said Mulroney's passion was a key factor in his success.

"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."

As prime minister, Mulroney set his sights on bringing Quebec into the constitution and twice failed.

His championing of free trade, which led Canada to sign a seminal agreement with the United States, was also popular in the province.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both remarked Friday on Mulroney's environmental legacy, which includes the 1991 acid rain accord he struck with former U.S president George H.W. Bush.

Today's Conservative party would be wise to reflect on the fact that Mulroney was lauded "as one of the greenest prime ministers Canada has ever had" by environmental groups, Trudeau said.

The Conservative party's bedrock of support now lies in the oil-rich provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, home to the Reform Party that was founded by Preston Manning in 1987 as western alienation swelled under Mulroney's leadership.

Mulroney's exit and the party's loss in 1993 election served as the nail in the coffin of the Progressive Conservative coalition, paving the way for an eventual merger with the nascent, neo-Reform party known as the Canadian Alliance. That union birthed the Conservative party of today.

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

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

Before winning his 1984 majority, Mulroney had pitched himself as the answer to a years-long freeze-out in Quebec.

In a 1980 speech he said the party had been relegated to the Opposition wilderness because of its failure to win over French-speaking parts of the country.

That remains a challenge for today's Conservatives.

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

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

Enter Pierre Poilievre, a fluently bilingual leader whose father was from a French-speaking community in Saskatchewan. One of the struggles the party has had since Mulroney, Husny said, is the fact it hasn't had a leader from Quebec.

That could be where Poilievre's wife comes in. A former Senate staffer, Anaida Poilievre grew up in Montreal, where her family migrated to from Venezuela when she was a child. She has taken a front-and-centre role for the party and describes herself as Quebecoise in French-language advertising.

Her personal history is expected to hold Poilievre in good stead as he seeks to rekindle Conservative support in Quebec in the next federal election.

Public opinion polls suggest a race is shaping up between the Tories and the Bloc Québécois, which Poilievre has consistently attacked in French, saying the party is in league with the Liberal minority government.

And while Scheer failed to satisfy Quebecers with his social conservative views around abortion, Anaida Poilievre recently said in a French-language interview that both she and her husband consider themselves "pro-choice."

Poilievre has also continued the conservative tradition of appealing to Quebec nationalists.

"Quebecers — and I’m saying this in English deliberately — do not apologize for their culture, language or history," he said to supporters at his party's policy convention in Quebec City last September.

"They celebrate it. All Canadians should do the same."

But will Quebecers accept Poilievre?

Liberal House leader Steve Mackinnon, who is a Quebec MP, said Mulroney's success was that "he knew what buttons to push."

"He was absolutely of the place. He had this remarkable ability to be seen as and accepted as an authentic Quebecer and all the while be able to go anywhere in Canada and, you know, wear the Maple Leaf on his sleeve."

"That's rarer I think than anyone would like it to be."

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

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version contained a headline that stated Mulroney was the only conservative prime minister to win in Quebec.