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Stephen Harper's speech to the "Winds of Change" conference in 1996 laid out a long-term strategy for a reunited Conservative Party. It could only win, he said, by doing what John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney did - uniting the populist conservatives of the West, the traditional Tories of Ontario and Atlantic Canada, and the francophone soft nationalists of Quebec. I call this the "Three Sisters" approach.

The Three Sisters speech was a road map to power. First, Mr. Harper brought together the western populists and the traditional Tories by merging the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives; then he pushed relentlessly to build francophone support in Quebec. At his insistence, the Conservatives held their 2005 national conference in Montreal and adopted policies, such as righting the "fiscal imbalance," calculated to resonate in Quebec.

Mr. Harper laid the groundwork carefully, changing the equalization formula to give Quebec more money, recognizing the Québécois as "a nation within a united Canada" and giving Quebec a seat at UNESCO. He started all his speeches and press conferences in French and said over and over how Quebec was the foundation of Canada.

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The strategy appeared to work, as the Conservatives won 10 seats in Quebec in 2006 and were poised in the 2008 election to win the additional Quebec seats that might give them a majority. Conservative support in the province, however, unexpectedly collapsed over small budget cuts to a few arts and culture programs, and the party was lucky to hold its 10-seat beachhead.

But was it really the petty culture cuts that torpedoed the Conservatives in Quebec? If your wife divorces you because you leave the toilet seat up one night, something else is probably involved.

Indeed, the Quebec relationship has been difficult to manage. The infighting between the Action Démocratique du Québec and provincial Liberal loyalists is a constant irritation, as is the fickle friendship of Quebec Premier Jean Charest. But the biggest problem is the attitude of the many Quebeckers who see Canada in instrumental terms as simply a source of benefits to the province. The Conservatives played to that sentiment in their ad campaigns, trying to convince voters that only they, not the Bloc Québécois, could deliver the goods. It worked in 2006 but not this time.

So the bad news is that the Third Sister is hard to please because she expects more and more. But the good news is that a Fourth Sister has appeared - the ethnic voters Mr. Harper has assiduously courted since early 2005, when he set out to change the Conservatives' white-bread image.

Again, he proceeded systematically. He reduced the immigrant landing fee, offered apologies for ancient grievances (the Chinese poll tax, the 1914 Komagata Maru incident) and appointed Jason Kenney secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity to build political ties in cultural communities.

The ethnic strategy paid off in the 2008 election - six new Conservative seats in the Greater Toronto Area and three in the Vancouver suburbs, plus competitive races in numerous inner-city ridings populated by immigrant voters. The barbarians really are at the gates. Ask Ujjal Dosanjh, who saw his margin in Vancouver South cut to 20 votes.

If they can build on these gains, the Conservatives may win a majority without major new gains in Quebec, particularly as reapportionment will leave Quebec with 75 seats while adding dozens of new seats in Alberta and the suburbs of Vancouver and Toronto. Yet, you can't just kiss the Third Sister goodbye. Any party aspiring to govern Canada needs to have MPs from Quebec in caucus and cabinet. But a bigger breakthrough in Quebec no longer seems like the only way of building a national majority.

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Mercifully, the Fourth Sister seems easier to woo than the Third. Ethnic voters don't rally to the fashionable causes of the left, such as gay marriage, carbon neutrality and the 100-mile diet; and they don't make many demands except to be accepted as good Canadians. What they want is exactly what the Conservative Party has on offer - lower taxes, a favourable business climate and safe streets.

The Liberals should watch this closely, because the Conservatives' courtship of the Fourth Sister is a death threat to their party. Ethnic voters are their only remaining core who have enough geographical concentration to win seats. If the Liberals lose the ethnic vote, their Evil Empire will go the way of Carthage, razed to the ground by the rising power of Rome.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.

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