Biggest surprise in Canada vote: Quebec

The Progressive Conservative Party did the impossible in Quebec in the Sept. 4 parliamentary elections, winning 58 of the province's 75 seats in the House of Commons and leaving the once-dominant Liberals with only 17.

''Nothing went wrong,'' said Liberal Cabinet minister Andre Ouellet, who narrowly held his own seat in the Tory onslaught. ''The people wanted change and they voted massively for change.''

Quebec has always been the turf of the Liberal Party, and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau kept it that way. Mr. Trudeau, who retired in June, is a native of Montreal.

Only once before have the Conservatives won so big here: That was under John Diefenbaker in 1958, when a Tory landslide across the country included the election of 50 members in Quebec. But that victory was due in large part to the influence of Maurice Duplessis, the premier of the province at that time. Mr. Duplessis threw the weight of his electoral machine behind Diefenbaker.

This time Brian Mulroney did it all by himself.

The prime minister-elect was born and brought up in the northern Quebec town of Baie Comeau, where his father worked in the local paper mill. He learned French in the streets and speaks the language in an accent familiar to the average Quebecker.

Diefenbaker had a hard time putting a phrase together in French, and his halting ''mes amis Canadiens'' was a source of humor in both English- and French-speaking Canada.

John Diefenbaker never held onto his power base in Quebec. In the election of 1962 the Tories had only 14 members from that province.

Mulroney's hold on power in Quebec may well be more lasting than that. He will not ignore his Quebec members of Parliament, and he can speak directly to Quebeckers in their own language, either French or English.

If he can manage to permanently hold on to a power base in Quebec, the Conservatives could have a chance of staying in power.

In this century at the national level, the Tories have been a flash in the pan. In for an election or two, they have then been out during long spells of Liberal rule. The Liberals have been in power for 21 years except for a nine-month hiccup for the Joe Clark government. Since 1900 the Tories have been in power only 22 years.

The Quebec preference for the Liberals goes back to the last century, when the Conservative government of Sir John A. Macdonald hanged Louis Riel, a French-speaking rebel who led an uprising in western Canada. It was compounded by things such as the Manitoba language act of 1891 and the conscription crisis of World War I. The Conservatives were seen as an English-speaking party, loyal to the Empire, suspicious of anything French.

It was probably an accurate assessment.

Brian Mulroney did himself and the Tories a big favor by choosing to run in his native district of Manicouagan, even though the Liberal member, Andre Maltais, won by 16,000 votes in the last election. It seemed impossible for Mulroney to win, but he did it.

As a resident of Baie Comeau said on election day, ''It's not everyday you get to elect a prime minister.''

In Ottawa this week, it was quiet. Moving cartons were stacked outside the office of Jean-Jacques Blais, the defeated minister of defense, as the Liberals move out and the Tories prepare to move in by mid-September.

It is going to be quite a move.

Many of the Conservative MPs from western Canada represent people who were against the bilingual policies of the Trudeau government. Many are those people don't like to see French on the side of their cornflake box.

Mulroney, however, is all in favor of bilingualism and will carry on the tradition of boosting Canada's second official language.

Quebec Premier Rene Levesque of the separatist Parti Quebecois welcomed the election of the Conservatives. Mr. Levesque, who had had a long-running dispute with Pierre Trudeau about Quebec's place in Canada, feels Mulroney will be more open to change.

Many of the people in Quebec who in the past voted for the Parti Quebecois voted for the Tories this time around in the federal elections. Indeed, many of the new Tory MPs from Quebec worked on the separatist side in the referendum on independence in 1980.

Mulroney welcomed the former separatists back into the Tory fold, and he was criticized by Liberal leader John Turner for this. But Mulroney worked that to his advantage by saying he was bringing Canadians together.

His job now will be to integrate those disparate groups as the fresh Tory MPs from Quebec arrive in Ottawa in the coming weeks.

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