Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is touring Quebec as he tries to assemble a coalition of voters ahead of the next election campaign.
During his swing through Montreal, Trois-Rivières and Quebec City, Poilievre is trying to win over sceptical voters in a province that hasn't been fertile ground for Conservative politicians in a generation.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney cruised to victory in two successive elections in the 1980s thanks to lopsided victories in Quebec. But since the emergence of the Bloc Québécois, the Conservative Party of Canada has failed to make any inroads in the province.
The most successful Conservative leader of the 21st century so far, former prime minister Stephen Harper, won only five seats in the province in the 2011 election, even as his party trounced the Liberals in key ridings in English Canada.
Recent polling from Angus Reid suggests Poilievre has a lot of ground to make up if he wants to challenge the Liberals and the BQ for supremacy in the province.
According to a December 2022 poll, just eight per cent of the 849 Quebecers surveyed have a "very favourable" view of Poilievre. Another 12 per cent have a "favourable" view of the Ontario MP. Some 44 per cent have a "very unfavourable" view.
After more than seven years in government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still enjoys relatively high levels of support in his home province — 47 per cent of Quebecers surveyed by Angus Reid either "strongly approve" or "moderately approve" of his performance.
Christian Bourque is the executive vice-president of Leger, a Quebec-based polling firm. He said there has been no "Poilievre bump" in the province.
While he easily won virtually every riding in the province during his leadership run, Poilievre's numbers are underwater among the broader Quebec electorate, Bourque said.
"We've seen a bit of improvement in terms of Mr. Poilievre's Ontario numbers, in B.C., but so far nothing in the province of Quebec," Bourque said.
"There are several issues that might explain that," he added. "One is the perception that he is more radical than his predecessor, Mr. O'Toole, on social conservatism in particular, which, we know in Quebec, simply doesn't work." (Poilievre has said he will not re-open the abortion debate in Canada.)
"The other reason might be that Quebecers just haven't warmed up to him."
Poilievre's stridently anti-Trudeau message also has less appeal in Quebec, Bourque said, because the prime minister still enjoys relatively high levels of support in the province.
His anti-establishment message, his support for some aspects of the anti-vaccine mandate convoy protests and his general opposition to COVID-19 policies aren't big vote-getters in the province either, he added.
Poilievre's more strident conservatism already has claimed one high-profile Quebec MP. Alain Rayes, who supported former Quebec premier Jean Charest in the leadership race, left the Tory caucus after that bruising campaign.
Poilievre's predecessor, Erin O'Toole, identified Quebec as a key part of his path to victory.
While he presented himself as a "true blue" Conservative during the party's leadership campaign, O'Toole pivoted after that victory by presenting himself as a moderate to appeal to disaffected Liberal, BQ and other voters.
His 2021 election platform also included a number of Quebec-specific promises designed to convince voters there that Tories were attuned to their political distinctiveness.
With a commitment to "build on the previous Conservative government's historic recognition of the Québec Nation," O'Toole said a government led by him would decentralize the federal government and hand more powers over to the province.
He promised to harmonize the Canadian and Quebec tax returns, give the province more powers over immigration and temporary foreign workers and stay neutral on the issue of Bill 21, the provincial legislation that bans public servants from wearing religious garb.
And O'Toole promised climate action. In Quebec, voters often tell pollsters climate change is their top political issue.
Poilievre hasn't yet taken a similar approach to Quebec.
His message in the province is largely the same as it is in English Canada — laser-focused on inflation and debt — and doesn't offer anything tailored for a Quebec audience.
In an interview with Radio-Canada on Monday, Polievre said he "respects Quebec's autonomy" and that "Quebecers should be masters of their own house." Vowing to shrink the size of government and reform a "broken" tax system, he also said he thinks "Quebecers have the same preoccupations as other Canadians."
Earlier Monday, he told Quebec reporters he'd work with the province to fast-track the certification of foreign-trained health care professionals to address labour shortages, and would streamline environmental reviews to get more natural resource projects built — both platform commitments he's made when outside the province.
Dimitri Soudas, Harper's Montreal-born former director of communications, said there's a "very stark contrast" between what O'Toole pitched to Quebecers and what Poilievre has on offer now.
"Erin O'Toole showed up in Quebec and told the premier — a popular premier, Francois Legault — 'Ask me anything you want and I will say yes.' Then Legault told Quebecers, 'Vote for anybody but the Liberals and the NDP,' basically endorsing Erin O'Toole and the Conservatives. And yet, that yielded zero new seats for the Conservative Party of Canada," Soudas said.
"Mr. Poilievre is straying from that past approach. He's basically saying, "I'm going to come into Quebec and I will talk to you like I'm talking to the rest of the country,' whether it's the economy or crime, whether it's foreign policy."
Soudas said the best hope for Poilievre is that the election comes at an opportune time — when a sufficient number of Quebecers and other Canadians are tired of Trudeau and ready for a change.
If the economy is disarray, Soudas said, Poilievre could be in a good position to pounce given his frequent references to "Justinflation" — his gag name for inflation rates under the Liberal government.
"In politics, timing is everything," he said. "He seems to be squarely focused on the economy, and that may end up very well yielding electoral success for him so long as the economy is the top issue during the next election campaign."