Expectations are high for ex−Quebec premier Jean Charest as he is set to take the stage for the French−language Conservative leadership debate in his home province, a crucial region that has proven instrumental in the party’s last two leadership races.

Charest, who is fully bilingual, must win the province if he hopes to win the contest, said a former Tory leadership candidate and political analyst.

"He’s playing at home in a way," said Rudy Husny. "In his game plan, he needs to win and show very strong results in Quebec to have a path to victory."

The party’s second official debate of the race takes place Wednesday near Montreal, as candidates only have about one week left to sell membership cards to supporters to be able to cast a ballot.

Quebec and its 78 ridings have been key in the party’s past two races, which saw Erin O’Toole elected in 2020 and Andrew Scheer in 2017. A change made last year, however, could change what role Quebec plays in deciding who will be the party’s next leader.

In past races, every riding was worth 100 points. That was adjusted last year after long−held concerns that ridings where there were fewer than 100 members carried the same weight as those with more than 1,000 members. Quebec in particular has carried a smaller membership base.

A change was made so that ridings with fewer than 100 members would be assigned points based on the number of votes that are cast. That has left candidates in this race working to sell memberships in Quebec to make sure ridings have at least 100 members.

Charest entered the race after spending more than 20 years out of federal politics, including the past decade in the private sector. His campaign sees a path to victory for the former federal Progressive Conservative leader through signing up droves of new members, including in Quebec.

"He knows the province, obviously, more than anyone else," said Gérard Deltell, a Conservative MP from the party’s Quebec caucus. Most of them are supporting Charest.

Conservative leadership candidates to battle for crucial #Quebec in French debate. #CDNPoli #CPC #ConservativeLeadership

"This is the road to win and we are winning that road."

Charest has fashioned himself as the leader the party needs to bridge the country’s geographic divides and bring it more success in Quebec. Since the party formed in 2003, the Conservatives have struggled to grow their support in Quebec beyond the 12 seats they once carried under former prime minister Stephen Harper.

In the 2021 federal election, the Tories walked away with 10 seats in that province, compared to 35 for the Liberals and 32 for the Bloc Québécois.

When it comes to Wednesday’s debate, Deltell dismissed the notion of expectations being any higher for Charest than the other five candidates, saying the debate will be an important event for them all.

Husny sees the debate largely being dominated by Charest and Pierre Poilievre, the party’s longtime Ottawa−area MP — and is also competing for Quebec members — because of their language skills.

Poilievre speaks French fluently and spent the weekend campaigning in the province.

On Tuesday, he wrote to federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, requesting the Liberal government eliminate the gas tax and GST on gas for the summer because of the high prices consumers are paying.

Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton, Ont., is also expected to be able to keep up during the French debate, which will be held in Laval, Que., just north of Montreal. The former MP has largely focused his campaign on selling party memberships to immigrant and racialized Canadians, including those who live in Montreal.

One of his biggest promises has been to fight a controversial secularism law in Quebec known by its legislative title of Bill 21. It prohibits some public servants deemed to be in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Before entering the race, Brown spearheaded a campaign among cities in Canada to pledge financial support behind a court challenge of the law. He says it violates religious freedoms.

Poilievre has previously said that he believes the law is wrong and hopes Quebec repeals it. Charest has also voiced opposition to Bill 21.

Deltell said while some may favour Brown’s approach of more forcefully fighting the law in court, many do not because it would step on Quebec’s jurisdiction.

"I totally disagree with the fact that the mayor of a city in another province decided to put money against a provincial decision," he said.

Husny anticipates Bill 21, as well as Quebec’s newly passed language law known as Bill 96, to be among the issues raised during the debate.

He said he also expects to see candidates discuss the Roxham Road border crossing in Quebec that many refugee claimants have used to enter Canada from the United States. Quebec Premier François Legault recently asked Ottawa to close it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2022.

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