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There was a time when Conservatives could win without Quebec, but now it would be folly to try. Yet it seems some Tory leadership candidates and putative contenders are trying to convince the party to do just that.

Kevin O'Leary, the TV personality who keeps hinting he'll run, has come up with bizarre excuses for why he wouldn't need to speak French, including the assertion that it's not necessary because many young Quebeckers are bilingual. Lisa Raitt, the veteran former cabinet minister, took a simple question in French last week but had to answer in English.

Presumably, they're hoping that Tories haven't noticed that things have changed. Quebec is now crucial to their electoral fortunes.

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Some candidates are just trying to paper over their poor French, of course. They will face a tough test next week, on Jan. 17, at the party's first French-language debate, where some will have to gamble on faking it. If Mr. O'Leary does run, he will apparently do so after the French debate.

Conservative party members should be wary. Most of the seven and a half million Canadians who speak French as their mother tongue are not bilingual, and many do care if a politician running for prime minister can hold a basic conversation in their language. "That's the minimum," said Bernard Généreux, the chair of the Conservatives' Quebec caucus. And Quebec, in particular, is more important to Conservative electoral hopes than it has been in the recent past.

It's true that Stephen Harper won power even though he never won more than 10 seats in Quebec. But he also won one only majority government, in 2011, when the Liberals' vote collapsed across the country. If he didn't win Quebec, most seats were usually in the hands of the Bloc Québécois, and they weren't a rival for power.

But the last two elections shook up federal politics in Quebec. The NDP displaced the Bloc in 2011. And in the 2015 election, Quebec was wide open, with four parties splitting the vote. In some ridings, MPs won with 29 per cent of the vote. No party has a lock on Quebec.

For the Conservatives, that's good and bad news. They can hope to do better. There's definitely a vein of small-c conservatives in the province who want lower taxes and less bureaucracy – as shown by provincial parties like the Coalition Avenir Québec and the now-defunct Action démocratique, which won seats around Quebec City, along the St. Lawrence, and in outer Montreal suburbs. The next Tory leader has a ready-made Quebec lieutenant in MP Gérard Deltell, a former Action démocratique leader. Some Tories think they could win 25 Quebec seats.

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Even if they don't gain, they can't afford to cede the ground. Polls show Mr. Trudeau's Liberals have been flying high in Quebec since the last election. A Nanos Research poll Dec. 30 put them 24 points ahead of the second-place Bloc – the kind of lead that in an election might net 60 seats in the province. And while a lead in polls is meaningless three years from an election, it's a warning that if the Tories don't compete for Quebec votes, they could hand the Liberals a massive edge.

Some Quebec Tory MPs, like Mr. Généreux and Mr. Deltell, have tried to signal to their own party that bilingualism is a critical leadership qualification. Perfection isn't necessary, Mr. Génereux said, but he scoffs at Mr. O'Leary's assertion that he would not need to speak French because more young Quebecers are now bilingual.

"Unfortunately for Mr. O'Leary, they're not the only ones who vote," Mr. Généreux said. "Whether it's Mr. O'Leary or another, if they know how to count, they will have to count on Quebec for the next election."

There aren't many obvious choices. Only one of the two francophones in the race, Maxime Bernier, is a serious contender, but he turns off some Quebec Tories – Mr. Généreux won't endorse him because his purist free-market policies include ending supply management for dairy farmers, a policy some Quebec MPs believe would damage the party in the province. Among first-tier candidates, former Commons speaker Andrew Scheer can get by in a French conversation, but most others struggle.

That makes next week's French debate a crucial test, and Conservatives can't afford to pretend it doesn't matter.

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