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Federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, left, and Quebec Premier Francois Legault get set to start their meeting in Montreal on Sept. 14, 2020.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

To all those Conservatives who think their party should stop bending over backwards to win more seats in Quebec, Erin O’Toole has responded with the proverbial middle finger.

The new Tory Leader not only aims to hold onto the 10 ridings his party has in the province, he emerged from a Tuesday meeting with Premier François Legault saying he seeks to triple the Conservative seat count in Quebec in the next federal election.

How far is Mr. O’Toole prepared to go to achieve that goal? Quite far, apparently; he promised to keep Ottawa’s nose out of Quebec’s business, even if it involves ignoring potential violations of the rights of religious and linguistic minorities in the province.

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“I think large federal institutions should respect the French-language provisions in Quebec," Mr. O’Toole told reporters after his tête-à-tête with Mr. Legault in Montreal. "I think it’s a question of respect, and I understand the priority of protecting a language, culture and identity.”

His comments were seen as a “concession” to Quebec nationalists by many commentators outside the province, who seem never to have forgiven former prime minister Brian Mulroney for opening this Pandora’s box by promising to recognize Quebec as a “distinct society” within Canada as part of the 1987 Meech Lake accord.

Meech famously went down in flames in 1990, after the legislatures of Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador missed the deadline for ratifying the accord. Support for sovereignty surged in Quebec afterward, leading to a lost decade of existential angst throughout the country that sucked up most of the political oxygen and left everyone bitter.

If support for outright sovereignty has waned since then, the desire among francophone Quebeckers to assert and protect their cultural distinctness has remained the driving force of politics in the province. This is an inescapable fact – one that the rest of Canada chooses to ignore or dismiss at its peril. It is not going away. Never. Ever.

So while it is entirely fair to criticize Mr. O’Toole’s vow not to challenge the province’s secularism or language laws in court, it is unfair to accuse the Conservative Leader of throwing the Constitution under the bus by doing so.

Francophone Quebeckers will always view the British North America Act as a negotiated compromise that created a common market while establishing a strict delineation between provincial and federal powers. The Charter of Rights was superimposed over this framework in 1982, creating an inherent tension between the collective rights recognized in the BNA Act and the individual ones the Charter seeks to protect.

When Mr. O’Toole said “we need a [federal] government that respects provincial autonomy and provincial legislatures,” as he did after emerging from his meeting with Mr. Legault, he was not just pandering to Quebec. The principle he was enunciating applies to all provinces, even if that appears to be lost on Ontario-based commentators who seem to forget that Canada is still a federation.

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At issue is the Legault government’s plan to table legislation that would subject federally regulated companies, such as banks and airlines, to Quebec’s Charter of the French Language. The charter guarantees the right of Quebec francophones to work in their language, a right that is seen to be increasingly under threat among employees of large national or multinational companies that operate predominantly in English.

The New Democratic Party and Bloc Québécois support extending the provincial language protections to federal institutions operating in Quebec. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals appear reticent to cede that ground. It would be up to the Supreme Court of Canada to decide whether Quebec could impose its language requirements on federally regulated companies. So, Ottawa’s position on the issue is not a minor detail.

Mr. O’Toole made it clear this week that a Conservative government led by him would not join a future constitutional challenge of Quebec’s language laws. He also vowed to refrain from intervening in an existing challenge to Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans some provincial employees from wearing religious symbols on the job. The Trudeau government has not ruled out joining a constitutional challenge to Bill 21 at the Quebec Court of Appeal or Supreme Court level. Indeed, it appears likely that it would.

In a Wednesday tweet, Mr. Legault called Mr. O’Toole’s promise “a victory for Quebec.” It was political gold for the Tory Leader; the uber-popular Quebec premier reigns atop his province’s politics to a degree unmatched by any of his recent predecessors. And so Mr. O’Toole’s goal of winning 30 Quebec seats? That might not seem so far-fetched.

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