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Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau makes his address at the 2013 Liberal national showcase on April 6, 2013 in Toronto.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

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Fewer than 12 per cent of the 127,000 people eligible to choose the next federal Liberal leader live in Quebec. That is a telling reminder of the Trudeau brand's complicated history in a province where Pierre Trudeau, despite winning 74 of Quebec's 75 seats in 1980, is not always remembered fondly.

If Justin Trudeau's ascension has attracted thousands of new Liberal recruits in most parts of the country, it remains far from clear that a Trudeau-led party could be a contender in francophone Quebec.

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To be sure, a recent Léger Marketing poll showed the Liberals taking the lead in Quebec with Mr. Trudeau at the helm. But the margin of error is too high, and voter engagement too low, to make the results very meaningful.

Mr. Trudeau consistently talked tough, and sometimes condescendingly, toward sovereigntists during his first term in Parliament, leading a certain segment of hardcore Quebec federalists nostalgic for his father to see him as their champion. The problem is, most of those people are English-speaking and confined to 20 odd seats on the island of Montreal and western Quebec.

With only eight Liberal seats in the province now, the lowest number since Confederation, Mr. Trudeau can only go up. The party stands a reasonable chance of recapturing half a dozen or so Montreal seats that fell to the New Democrats in 2011, and perhaps two or three more in the Outaouais region.

Those also appear to be the parts of Quebec where the Liberals still have a semblance of organization. Elsewhere, they have had a hard enough time finding candidates in recent years, much less workers and voters.

The key to reviving his party in francophone Quebec may lie in Mr. Trudeau's ability to bite his tongue. That could be problematic. Defending the federalist vision embodied by his father is what Mr. Trudeau does best. But his tone and comments on the topic typically earn him unfavourable coverage in the Quebec media and only serve to remind francophone Quebeckers what they disliked about his father.

Take his February reaction to an NDP bill requiring only a simple majority of Quebeckers to vote for sovereignty in order for Ottawa to begin negotiations on Quebec's secession. Mr. Trudeau quipped that such a profound change to the country should require as least as many votes as it takes for the NDP to amend its party constitution. That threshold is two-thirds, leading to headlines in Quebec suggesting Mr. Trudeau was setting the bar that high for a future 'yes' vote to warrant Ottawa's recognition.

Since then, Mr. Trudeau has avoided engaging on the issue, simply saying Quebeckers are tired of the division and don't want to talk about it. That is certainly true. But letting sleeping dogs lie also carries risks for Mr. Trudeau. The hardline federalist Liberal base in Quebec expects him to be a strident defender of his father's vision. And as leader, Mr. Trudeau will be constantly provoked by his opponents on the issue.

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"For too long, people have tried to buy off Quebec rather than involve Quebec in building the future of Canada," Mr. Trudeau said at the final Liberal leadership debate, held in Montreal last month. For too long, he added, federalist politicians have reasoned that "if we can only extend a certain gesture or a certain recognition toward Quebec, that the Canada-Quebec question will be settled. We've been trying that for 30 years. At some point, you have to move on."

That comment was directed at Liberals voting in the leadership race, not Quebec voters at large. And it drew a stiff rebuke from leadership rival Martin Cauchon, who spoke for the large number of francophone federalists who believe that having Quebec sign the 1982 Constitution must remain the stated goal of Liberals. The new leader of the party's provincial wing, Philippe Couillard, has taken the same stand, even if all agree the time is not ripe for negotiations. That is bound to produce intra-party tensions and some awkward moments for the new federal leader.

Will Quebec turn out to be Mr. Trudeau's Achilles heel?

Konrad Yakabuski writes about public policy for The Globe and Mail.

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