The great political divide in Canada: Will it be bridged by a Quebecker?

There is a political saw in Quebec that you can paint a pig red and it will get elected. In Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec, les rouges, the reds, are the Liberals and les bleus, the blues, are the Conservatives. So it is with some intrigue here that a lawyer from Quebec named Brian Mulroney is running hard for the leadership of the national Progressive Conservative Party (the Tories) even though he comes from a province which Liberals dominate.

The Liberals have held the majority of seats in Quebec in every election this century, with the exception of 1958. The reasons for the historical French-Canadian loyalty to the Liberals range from bad feelings over the conscription crisis of 1917 to the Pacific railway scandal of the 1870s.

Mr. Mulroney is running for the leadership of the party against Joe Clark, the man who beat him in 1976. Although Mulroney has yet to declare his candidacy officially, he is expected to do so in coming days.

Clark has been party leader for six years, including nine months as Canada's prime minister. His hold on the party leadership was cast in doubt after he received only lukewarm endorsement at the party's convention in January. So he and Mulroney will face each other again at the leadership convention in June. Many people say Brian Mulroney could win this time.

The Conservative Party in Canada knows it has to build a base in Quebec, even a small one, if it is ever going to break the Liberals' power in Ottawa. The Liberals hold the reins in the national government because they won 74 out of the 75 federal seats in Quebec. They have a total of 147 seats in the House of Commons to the Conservatives' 101. (The socialist New Democratic Party and an independent make up the rest of the 282 seats in the parliamentary chamber.)

The Liberal Party headed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has no seats west of Winnipeg, Manitoba. In American terms that is equivalent to drawing a line from Bismark, N.D., to Galveston, Texas, with the Democrats holding all the Eastern seats and the Republicans all the Western seats. The division means Canada in effect does not have a national political party, rather two large regional ones with the Liberals based mainly in central and eastern Canada and the Tories with their strength in the west. So western Canadians feel alienated, seeing the Trudeau government as Quebec-dominated, understanding little of the problems of provinces which make their livelihood selling wheat, oil, coal, and lumber.

This is why Brian Mulroney is running for the leadership of the Conservative Party. If he could win and then bring in just 15 seats from Quebec, he would have created a national political party and made himself prime minister of Canada in the bargain.

With the Conservatives leading in the polls, and Joe Clark rejected by his own party, it would seem an easy task, but Mulroney has a long way to go before he can put up his feet at 24 Sussex Drive, the home of Canadian prime ministers. Not only will Pierre Trudeau be hard to move out, but Joe Clark has proven he doesn't budge from the top party post that easily either.

Mulroney has the money and organization to run, but so do ex-Toronto mayor David Crombie and Toronto businessman Michael Wilson, both ex-Cabinet ministers, and both officially declared candidates. And if the Tory premiers of Alberta and Ontario, Peter Lougheed and Bill Davis, decide to run, Mulroney will have an even tougher time of it. But so far Lougheed and Davis are staying out of the race and Mulroney looks like the front-runner for the June convention.

Mulroney is an unusual man to be considered for the leadership of the Conservative Party. He grew up in Baie Comeau, a mill town on the St. Lawrence River, and eventually got a law degree from Laval University in Quebec City. He went to work for an established law firm in Montreal and became a labor lawyer, handling the labor problems of the large Canadian and American companies based in Montreal. He was tough and spoke the same type of street French as the labor leaders he negotiated with.

In 1974, Mulroney was named to head a government commission looking into crooked labor practices, especially in the free-wheeling construction unions which ruled the roost at the site of the Olympic games in Montreal.

Mulroney then became president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, a mining company in northern Quebec, just north of the town where he was born. He was perhaps an ideal choice for the job because bitter strikes have been part of the history of the company.

There is one drawback to Mulroney's ambition to be Tory leader. He has never held a seat in the House of Commons; he has not been elected to any office since his days in student politics. His supporters say his business background is a plus, saying that Clark has done nothing in his life but politics.

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