Last week, Kevin O’Leary dropped out of the Conservative leadership contest despite being heralded by many political insiders as being one of the front-runners of the race. He cited his inability to draw substantive support in Quebec, which would ultimately cost him the ability to win a general election.
Quebec was always going to be a challenge for a guy like O’Leary. For starters, he does not speak the language. But as Martin Patriquin points out in iPolitics, this wasn’t necessarily a fatal flaw, as O’Leary was taking French lessons and had shown a genuine commitment to learning the language: “He also apparently forgot that making a show of improving one’s French (as he was doing with gusto) is a sure-fire way to endear oneself to Quebec voters. If only someone had told him the rule about anglo-politicians speaking French in Quebec: You only need to be good enough to be understood — and bad enough to be pitied.”
The more difficult hurdle for O’Leary was the issue of name recognition. One thing that was constantly lost in the talk of the leadership race here in English Canada was the notion that O’Leary’s name recognition, media presence and social media reach gave him an edge that could not be matched by any of the non-reality-TV politicians, except that conversation never really factored in the fact that Quebecers don’t watch Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank — they watch Dans L’oeil Du Dragon, which is the Quebec equivalent. Kevin O’Leary is not a household name in Quebec in the same way that he might be in Ontario or Alberta.
Again, this isn’t particularly insightful stuff I’m noting here, as this was literally foreseeable from Day 1. Yet O’Leary, his campaign and its supporters all ignored the painstakingly obvious evidence from the beginning, insisting instead that Quebecers were in no way, a unique demographic that required a different strategy or approach.
Which brings us to the other leadership contest underway, for the NDP. There are currently five confirmed contenders, with many political observers hoping that the Deputy Leader for the Ontario NDP, Jagmeet Singh, will join and shake things up. If rumours are correct and he is planning to jump into the race in mid-May, then he should learn from the O’Leary campaign’s mistakes.
First, Singh needs to make sure that his campaign features people in senior communications and policy roles that are actually from Quebec, or at least take the time to familiarize themselves with the province. Any campaign staffer with access to Google would have been able to tell O’Leary that compared to the rest of Canada, virtually nobody in Quebec knew who he was, and that being a unilingual anglophone is actually perceived to be worse if you also claim to be from the province.
Similarly, anyone with knowledge of Quebec’s history and commitment to secularism would be able to prepare Singh for the painfully predictable questions he will get about his Sikh faith and how it plays a role in his politics. This isn’t just advice based on anecdotes, but based on ample data through polling. Over 75 per cent of Quebecers believe anyone in a position of authority should not be wearing religious symbols and two-thirds believe that a religious-symbols ban should apply to all public sector workers. While Singh has a staunch progressive record on social issues, people in Quebec will no doubt wonder if the outward expression of his religion conflicts with or influences his policy decisions.
O’Leary wrongly claimed that the Conservatives are unable to win without Quebec, apparently unaware that the Conservatives won a majority in 2011, with only five seats from Quebec. However, the opposite seems to be true for the NDP, as Quebec was integral to propelling them to official opposition status. This makes sense on two separate levels: not only is Quebec the most progressive province on many social issues, it’s also the province with the highest union membership, which makes it a natural home for the NDP.
If Quebec were any other province, then Singh’s record of being committed to labour issues would be the primary attraction potential NDP voters would look to. But Quebec isn’t any other province.
When the Parti Québécois unveiled its Charter of Values, it did so knowing that the proposal would be popular amongst the general electorate as well as its core demographic, which happens to traditionally include labour organizations. While it’s true that the largest labour organization, the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, which represents 60,000 workers approached the Charter debate with some trepidation and reservation, it was nowhere near the condemnation you would expect from left-leaning labour organizations in the rest of the country. In fact, the union representing 42,000 civil servants actually came out in support of the Charter, as did others, including the federation of Quebec nurses’ union.
The rest of Canada likes to paint Quebec as some sort of mysterious place that just can’t be pegged down, but the reality is that Quebec comes by its commitment to secular values pretty honestly, if not at times laden with implicit and explicit xenophobia.
Obviously, Singh’s problems are not the same as O’Leary’s, yet the advice for Singh remains effectively the same as for O’Leary: ignore insider advice regarding Quebec at your own peril. If Singh pulls an O’Leary and surrounds himself by people either unfamiliar with Quebec or unwilling to be brutally honest with their candidate about the province, then the incline in Singh’s uphill battle in the province is going to get ever steeper.