Why Doug Ford's Franco-Ontarian cost-cutting could spell trouble for Andrew Scheer
What's been called a "sad day for Franco-Ontarians" presents a challenge for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer — not only in Ontario but in every part of the country where francophones live.
The Conservatives are hoping to replicate Premier Doug Ford's electoral success in Ontario and see him as a key ally in the fight against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's carbon tax. But they also have great hopes of wooing Quebec voters — hopes that could be dashed if Scheer is unable to reconcile his support for Ford with his pitch to the francophone voters now angered by Ford's actions.
In its fiscal update on Thursday, Ford's government announced it would be cancelling a project to build a long-awaited French-language university in Toronto and would be abolishing the position of the French language services commissioner.
These decisions hit Franco-Ontarians hard and the reaction has been swift and furious. The front page of Le Droit, a major Franco-Ontarian newspaper, called it a "black day for francos." Francophone organizations and associations across the province have denounced the move and say they are prepared to contest it in the courts.
But French-speakers in Ontario weren't the only ones who took notice. In New Brunswick and Manitoba, concerns are being raised about what it signals for the francophone minorities in those provinces.
This is an especially sensitive issue in New Brunswick, where a new Progressive Conservative government is taking office that is dependent for survival on the People's Alliance, a party that wants to end the province's policy of separate institutions based on language.
Quebec's French-language media — which normally would pay little attention to a provincial fiscal update in Ontario — also jumped on the news. Le Devoir reported the decision under the headline, "Doug Ford sacrifices Ontario francophones." Le Journal de Montréal, a widely-read and generally conservative-leaning paper, called it a "sad day."
Quebec Premier François Legault, a small-c conservative himself, also expressed his concerns and said he would take up the issue with his Ontario counterpart. The mayor of Quebec City — the municipality at the centre of the region where most of the Conservatives' seats in the province are located — denounced the move as mean-spirited and provocative.
Stuck between Ford and a hard place
It all puts Scheer in a difficult position. Ford's Progressive Conservative government in Ontario is not only ideologically aligned with the federal Conservatives, it's in lockstep with Scheer's campaign against the federal carbon tax.
Quebec Conservative MPs were quick to say on Friday that their party would always stand up for francophones, though they did not go so far as to say that they would stand against the actions of the Ontario government. But if Scheer and his party don't do more to show that they are not aligned with Ford's policy toward Franco-Ontarians, that could cost them support among French Canadians across the country.
Quebec isn't the only place where the francophone vote is decisive, although it is a province where the Conservatives have hopes of making gains. The party is polling in second place in Quebec and stole a seat away from the Liberals in the Chicoutimi–Le Fjord byelection earlier this year.
Francophones make up at least a fifth of the population in all 78 of Quebec's ridings and a majority in 65.
But outside of Quebec, there are four ridings with majority francophone populations — three in New Brunswick and one in Ontario. There are another 14 ridings — in New Brunswick, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba — where francophones make up at least 10 per cent of the population. Half of those ridings voted Conservative the last time the party won a majority government in 2011; they would be key to any Conservative victory in 2019.
Offside on the carbon tax
It's not likely that being seen as close to the Ford government will do Scheer many favours in the 96 ridings across the country with significant francophone populations.
Scheer has very publicly allied himself with Ford, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney (who may become Alberta's premier after next spring's provincial election) in his fight against Trudeau's carbon tax. He may prove reluctant to take Ford to task over a separate issue that he'd prefer to avoid altogether.
That alliance could compound the potential for problems facing Conservatives in Quebec. Quebec will not be affected by the federally-imposed carbon tax; the province already has a cap-and-trade system in place.
But voters in Quebec are worried about climate change. Polls show that it rates as an issue most highly in Quebec, putting the environment and climate change among the top issues for voters in the province.
The Liberals' plan to put a price on carbon is also more popular in Quebec than anywhere else in the country. A recent Angus Reid Institute poll put approval of the plan at 69 per cent.
Mainstreet Research not only found support for the plan higher in Quebec than elsewhere, it reported that 77 per cent of Quebecers told the polling firm they strongly or somewhat agreed that "it is more important for the government to solve the issue of climate change even if that means that the economy suffers."
That puts Scheer at risk of being out of step with Quebecers in the next federal election on one major issue — a risk that could be amplified if francophones also sense the Conservative leader is unwilling to distance himself from Ford's approach to funding services for Franco-Ontarians.