For better or worse, Quebec drove the agenda of Canadian politics throughout the second half of the 20th century. Prime ministers Louis Saint-Laurent, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were all from Quebec. Just as importantly, Quebec MPs were often pivotal in the caucus of the governing party: without its Quebec seats, the government of the day would not have been in power, or at least not with a majority government. That was true as much for the Conservative governments of Diefenbaker and Mulroney (except in the landslide years of 1958 and 1984) as for the Liberal governments of Saint-Laurent, Pearson, Trudeau, Chrétien and Martin. And ever since the Quiet Revolution, there was the threat of separation, used by Quebec provincial politicians of all parties to put an edge on their demands.
Since 1993, however, things have changed. By swinging to the Bloc Québécois and more recently to the NDP, Quebec voters have given up much of their leverage with the federal government, a trend that has only accelerated in 2008 and 2011. To form a government, Quebec seats might have been necessary to Paul Martin in 2004 and Stephen Harper in 2006, but not to Harper in 2008. And now, after the 2011 election, Harper heads a Conservative majority government with only five Quebec seats, and the Conservatives would still have a majority even if they had no seats at all from that province. Moreover, the separatist movement is in disarray, with the electoral collapse of the BQ, internal feuding within the Parti Québécois and the appearance of new separatist parties and organizations.
When Stephen Harper became leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada, he thought that, in order to win, it would be necessary to recover at least part of the francophone vote in Quebec that Brian Mulroney had brought over to the Progressive Conservatives in the 1980s. This was part of the “Three Sisters” theory that he first articulated at the Winds of Change conference in Calgary in 1996: a Conservative majority had to be built on the support of populists in western Canada, traditional Tories in Ontario and Atlantic Canada and francophone nationalists (but not separatists) in Quebec.
When he became Conservative leader, Harper acted consistently on the Three Sisters theory. He worked on his French, spent a lot of time in Quebec and, when he became Prime Minister, placed several Quebec-oriented policies in the window, such as fixing the “fiscal imbalance” and recognizing the Québécois as “a nation within Canada.” For a while it seemed to be working, as the Conservatives won ten seats in Quebec in 2006 and were on track to win as many as 30 seats there in 2008. But then the tide went out in the middle of the campaign, and the Conservatives were lucky to hold their ten seats. And then they were reduced to five Quebec seats in 2011.