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COMMENTARY: Andrew Scheer’s Quebec conundrum and what it means for the Conservatives

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. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joel Lemay, POOL

The TVA French leaders’ debate has come and gone, and for once, pundits actually seem to agree on a few things.

The first is that newbie Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet won the debate, giving a solid performance that will breathe even more life into his already-resurgent party. The second is that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh exceeded expectations, but that his performance probably won’t help him much in a province where a voter blithely tells him to cut off his turban to appear “more Canadian.”

The third is that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had a pretty bad night, as his three opponents vied for the title of Most Progressive In the Room — and made him, instead of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, their communal punching bag.

READ MORE: Federal party leaders hope to gain Quebec votes in French-language debate

The gang-up started right out of the gate with the issue of abortion, on which Trudeau challenged Scheer to state his personal position, i.e., that he is pro-life. Scheer was probably told that his Quebec audience would enjoy this as much as a trip to Gilead, so he stuck to talking points about not reopening the abortion debate if elected.

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This was a mistake, as it made him seem evasive and raised the spectre of the Right Wing Hidden Agenda, which Scheer then had to dispel at a press conference the next morning.

Next up was Bill 21, Quebec’s law banning the wearing of religious symbols by state employees, where Trudeau, ironically, was the only leader who stood up for minority rights — sort of —while Scheer and Singh talked up an earnest defence of provincial autonomy.

Federal Election 2019: Bill 21, abortion and environment among topics debated in first French-language debate
Federal Election 2019: Bill 21, abortion and environment among topics debated in first French-language debate

On the issue of SNC-Lavalin, the NDP leader was also in Scheer’s corner, but not with much gusto, as Blanchet painted the entire exercise as an attack on Quebec Inc.

After that, it was back to everyone piling on Scheer’s absence at the Montreal climate change rally and his proposal for a cross-Canada energy corridor.

The only time things kind of turned around for the Tory leader was when he made his “two planes” comment, revealing that Trudeau is deploying not one but two campaign jets, “one for him and the media, the other for his costumes and canoe.”

This became the meme of the evening, with the Conservatives circulating social media posts depicting “hypocrite” Trudeau astride two planes while the Liberals countered that they had purchased carbon credits to offset their emissions. The mere fact that this became one of the trending exchanges of the debate shows how content-free this election has become.

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The everyone-against-Scheer dynamic was revelatory for other reasons, however. It illustrated how the Quebec-vs-rest-of-Canada dynamic has shifted over the years, and how politicians have adapted to it.

In decades past, the threat of actual separation loomed large, reaching its apex in the 1995 referendum when Quebecers came within one per cent of choosing secession. This provoked both tough talk and outpourings of emotion from federal leaders, in their quest for the mantle of “Captain Canada.” Quebec was distinct, but that distinctness was based on language and history, not on political positioning on specific issues such as abortion, LGBTQ2 rights, or climate change.

READ MORE: A look at true and false statements by party leaders in French-language debate

Today, this separatist zeal has abated, but Quebec is arguably more distinct than ever, in ways that sometimes confound the rest of Canada. It is impossible to imagine any other province passing Bill 21, for example, but for many Quebecers, it is a natural outgrowth of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, which saw the Catholic Church lose its socio-political clout.

In the same vein, Quebecers reject social conservatism as a hangover of the Duplessis era, and eye anyone who espouses it with deep suspicion. Hostility to religion in public life has become a hallmark of Quebec culture, spurred on in recent years by anti-Muslim sentiment in France and other European nations with whom Quebec has a considerable cultural affinity.

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Calgary unanimously votes to condemn Quebec’s Bill 21
Calgary unanimously votes to condemn Quebec’s Bill 21

And then there’s environmentalism, which has arguably become Quebec’s new religion, complete with a host of evangelists, saints and demons. There’s a reason Greta Thunberg chose to come to Montreal, and not Calgary, or even Toronto: Quebec’s progressive leanings, coupled with an abundance of hydroelectricity, have made it a hotbed of climate change activism. Even the so-called populist CAQ rejects pipelines; fracking is verboten; and carbon taxes are de rigueur.

Apart from British Columbia, there isn’t a place in Canada where trees get more hugs — or where oil is such a dirty word.

In other words, for pro-life, carbon-friendly, Anglo-Canadian Scheer, the first French debate was probably over before it began.

And for Conservatives, it will prompt some soul-searching, as they seek a path to power in the Canada — and Quebec — of the 21st century.

Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.