03/12/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Undeterred by failure, Tories get back to work at wooing Montreal

MONTREAL - Undeterred by more than two decades of electoral failures in Canada's second-largest city, the federal Conservatives aren't giving up on Montreal just yet.

A Tory riding association in suburban Montreal has recruited local politicians to help the party claim an ever-elusive foothold in the region.

The Conservative organization in the longtime Liberal fortress of Lac-Saint-Louis recently elected six municipal councillors — from each of the riding's five cities — to its executive committee. City politicians now occupy all but one of the association's executive seats.

Larry Smith, a star Tory candidate who lost in the suburban riding last May, said the goal was to enlist municipal leaders who can explain local concerns to the Conservatives and help attract voters.

"They're wired right into the pulse," said the former CFL commissioner, who was reappointed to the Senate after losing to Liberal incumbent Francis Scarpaleggia.

"It's important to get credible people ... who are going to be able to reach out and build that mass of interest that's so important if you hope to be victorious in an election. But more importantly, understanding all the key issues in the area."

Smith said he's focused on rebuilding Conservative support on the island of Montreal, where the Tories haven't won a seat since 1988.

That's also the last time a Conservative MP represented Lac-Saint-Louis, where Smith finished third behind the Liberals and New Democrats in a narrow three-way race.

Looking ahead, he didn't commit to another run in Lac-Saint-Louis, but didn't rule it out, either.

"That's not really the No. 1 item on my agenda right now," replied Smith, when asked whether he would once again seek the Tory nomination.

Regardless of who runs next time, the former newspaper publisher and Montreal Alouettes president wants to get an early start building up the local Tory voter base.

"You want to be making sure you're out in the field three and four years before (an election)," he said.

Montreal represents a black hole in the Conservatives' successful drive for a majority mandate, and across Quebec, the party has just five MPs.

Since the election, decisions made by the Harper government have had a rocky reception in Quebec.

The Conservative government made a much-needed, $5-billion commitment last fall to replace Montreal's disintegrating Champlain Bridge, but it has also angered some Quebecers by naming unilingual anglophones to the Supreme Court of Canada and as auditor general.

Critics in the province also took exception to Tory moves to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, kill the long-gun registry and reaffirm Canada's connection to the British monarchy in federal institutions.

Despite the opposition voiced by many in the province, the Conservative riding association in Lac-Saint-Louis continues to work toward a breakthrough.

In a news release distributed to local newspapers, it hailed the councillor-dominated board as an "historical boost" for Tory support in the region. A spokeswoman for Smith said the idea to recruit municipal politicians is a local endeavour and not part of any national strategy.

Rhonda Massad, one of the councillors elected to the executive committee, said she decided to vie for the post after being encouraged by Smith, whom she endorsed in the last election.

The councillor for the western suburb of Beaconsfield believes that joining the Tory riding association can only benefit her city.

"For me, I wanted to be closer to the head of the horse," said Massad, first elected to Beaconsfield's council in 2009.

"(The Conservatives) are the ones that will issue grants or issue help in the region... The ridings that aren't voting Conservative are not the favourite child right now.

"That's logical, that's politics and that's life."

But the executive committee's vice-president says connecting local politicians to the governing federal party doesn't necessarily mean the region will be favoured when federal grants are doled out.

"Does it bring more money? Not necessarily," said Michel Gibson, a Kirkland councillor for the last two decades.

"We'll still get something because there's a need, but we've got a Larry Smith that's there to push the issue also with the government in Ottawa."

Gibson is one of two councillors who were already on the committee, which has added four since the election.

The subject of political favouritism dogged Smith before the election, during which he was criticized for saying it's "normal" for Conservative ridings to receive more money from Ottawa than those held by opposition MPs.

His opponents accused him of defending pork-barrel politics.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper quickly tried to deflect Smith's comments, insisting his government had a good record of delivering projects to all ridings across Canada - held by Tory and non-Tory MPs.

Smith was asked recently whether the presence of municipal politicians on the Lac-Saint-Louis executive would help attract federal funding to the area.

"I'm not going to go that far," he replied.

"I think what's most important is you have people that are decision makers that come from the grassroots and can go right up to the highest levels."