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opinion

Quebec Premier François Legault might as well have said “Pierre who?” when he was asked on Sunday what he thought about the Conservative Party of Canada’s new leader.

“I don’t know him,” Mr. Legault offered at a stop in Drummondville, Que., where his Coalition Avenir Québec had just held one of its biggest rallies of the provincial election campaign. What’s more, he claimed to have no idea what the populist Tory Leader stands for.

Yeah, right. He would need to have been living under the Rocher Percé for the past several months not to know where the no-vaccine-mandate, pro-trucker-convoy, anti-elite, bitcoin-loving new Conservative leader stands on the major issues of the day.

Still, Mr. Legault’s hesitation towards Mr. Poilievre is understandable. His decision to endorse the Tories in last year’s federal election campaign turned out to be a big blunder on his part. Despite Mr. Legault’s own lofty approval ratings at the time, Quebeckers rejected his advice.

How will Mr. Poilievre fare in the province that has not elected a majority of Conservative MPs since 1988, and where Tory support has hovered in the mid-teens in recent elections?

Not well, if Montreal-based media “gatekeepers” are to be believed. Mr. Poilievre’s promises to scrap Ottawa’s carbon tax (which does not apply in Quebec, since the province has its own cap-and-trade scheme) and repeal federal environmental assessment legislation adopted in 2019 has earned him a slew of negative coverage and derision on social media. As has his vow to smooth the way for pipelines through Quebec and a liquefied natural gas project in the Saguenay region that was rejected last year by both the federal and provincial governments.

On Sunday, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for the far-left Québec Solidaire, described Mr. Poilievre as a “Donald Trump imitator” who would be “dangerous for the planet.” That may not sound terribly original. But it does sum up Mr. Poilievre’s current image in Quebec.

Quebec MP Alain Rayes’s decision to quit the Conservatives after Mr. Poilievre’s victory in the leadership race speaks to the malaise within the party’s Quebec caucus over the direction the new leader will take the Tories. Only one MP among the 10-member Quebec Tory caucus – Pierre Paul-Hus – endorsed Mr. Poilievre. Mr. Rayes may not be the only one to leave the federal Tories.

Mr. Poilievre’s my-way-or-the-highway reaction to Mr. Rayes’s departure does not augur well for Jean Charest’s supporters in caucus. He characterized the resignation as a betrayal rather than a principled decision by an MP who could not countenance the angry political tone the new leader had set during the campaign.

“We are working to fight the inflationary deficits and taxes imposed by Justin Trudeau,” Mr. Poilievre said on Tuesday. “The citizens of Mr. Rayes’s riding agree: They voted for me in the leadership race.”

Well, that overstates matters. Mr. Poilievre got 358 votes in Mr. Rayes’s riding of Richmond-Arthabaska compared to 280 votes for Mr. Charest. The riding has more than 88,000 registered voters. Only 0.4 per cent of them voted for Mr. Poilievre.

There is no denying that Mr. Poilievre made quick work of Mr. Charest in his home province. He won in 72 of 78 ridings. But his victory is a testimony to the failure of the Charest campaign to sign up enough new members in the province. Instead, Mr. Charest won only 32 per cent of 7,800 points in Quebec. Mr. Poilievre won 62 per cent.

Quebec accounted for only 8.7 per cent, or about 36,000, of the 417,635 Tory leadership ballots cast across the country. Mr. Poilievre will need to woo a lot more Quebeckers than that before the next federal election.

Despite his bad press in Quebec up to now, no one should count him out. He speaks French better than any Tory leader since, well, Mr. Charest, who led the federal Progressive Conservative Party between 1993 and 1998, and former PC prime minister Brian Mulroney, a native of Baie-Comeau, Que., who twice swept the province, in 1984 and 1988, on his way to winning big majorities nationally.

Mr. Poilievre’s ease in both official languages stands in stark contrast to the laboured French of Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer. Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s French was quite serviceable, but it did not exactly roll off his lips. Mr. Poilievre has no such handicap in the province where language matters most.

With his communication skills and a platform that promises Quebec more autonomy in areas such as culture and immigration – not to mention his dynamic trilingual Venezuelan-born and Montreal-raised wife at his side – Mr. Poilievre might yet make the Tories a contender in the province. Mr. Legault might even have to take note of him.