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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses his supporters at his annual Stampede BBQ in Calgary, Alberta, July 5, 2014. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses his supporters at his annual Stampede BBQ in Calgary, Alberta, July 5, 2014. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

Harper embarks on strategy to win back Quebec voters Add to ...

Stephen Harper is planning a cabinet meeting in Quebec City as part of celebrations surrounding Confederation, hoping to boost his party’s profile in a former Conservative stronghold that was swept up by the NDP in the last election.

The rare cabinet meeting to be held outside Ottawa, which is in preparation for early September, will allow Mr. Harper to promote the role of Conservative Fathers of Confederation in protecting the rights of the provinces when Canada was founded in 1867. The event is expected to include meetings with provincial counterparts, announcements, and celebrations that will lead up to Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, sources said.

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Emboldened by the defeat of the Parti Québécois in the recent provincial election, the Prime Minister has embarked on a strategy to win back seats in and around Quebec City in the 2015 federal vote. The Conservatives hold five seats in Quebec, and want to double their tally in a swath of ridings between Lac-St-Jean and the lower St. Lawrence that they call the “blue arrow,” the sources said, adding that the cabinet meeting and other events will be part of that.

Mr. Harper is striving to have positive relationships with Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, extolling his government’s ability to make progress in areas of mutual interest. Conservative insiders said the federal government is making “a real effort to improve the tone of the discussions” with the provincial government, while acknowledging that federalism involves occasional disputes.

“I have no doubt that, despite the disagreements that we are bound to have from time to time, we will continue to work together and get results – tangible results that will be good for our economy,” Mr. Harper told Mr. Couillard at an event last month.

The cabinet meeting in Quebec City is scheduled to coincide with ceremonies to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown and Quebec City conferences, which were held in 1864 and paved the way for Confederation three years later.

The federal government is also paying tribute this year to George-Étienne Cartier, a Conservative politician and Father of Confederation who was born in 1814.

In a speech at the Calgary Stampede, Mr. Harper praised Cartier for his “Conservative vision of a strong Quebec in a united Canada.”

Mr. Harper said his government strives to stay out of provincial jurisdiction, saying that this approach, and the lack of major disputes with the provincial government, led to the downfall of the PQ.

“The gradual decline in Quebec separatist sentiment throughout the stewardship of our government – a government which has honoured Cartier’s principles – is something we should take pride in,” Mr. Harper told supporters in Calgary.

The Harper government will be under pressure at the September meeting to announce funding for a month-long tall ships regatta in July, 2017. Forty vessels would make stops in cities throughout the Maritimes, and then gather in Quebec City for a week of festivities.

Mr. Labeaume has called the event the main priority in his dealings with Ottawa. Organizers are hoping Ottawa will pick up a portion of the estimated $10-million budget, stating that federal approval will be key to obtaining specific commitments from the other provinces involved and private-sector sponsors.

“We are awaiting the verdict of the federal government,” said François Moreau, president of Rendez-vous Naval.

The Prime Minister’s Office refused to confirm the meeting of cabinet ministers in Quebec City, but Conservative sources said the preparations are well under way.

“This is the subject of internal discussions,” a federal source said.

Mr. Harper and Mr. Couillard were all smiles on June 25 when they signed an agreement in which Ottawa guaranteed the transfer of $5-billion in gas tax revenues to the province over the next 10 years.

Mr. Harper arrived at the meeting on the shores of the Lac St-Jean in a boat driven by his Quebec lieutenant, Denis Lebel. The Prime Minister and the Premier spoke at podiums on which the word “collaboration” was printed in large letters.

“Everyone benefits when our governments work together in a frank and effective manner,” Mr. Harper said. “We must never forget that while there are several levels of government within the Canadian federation, there is only one level of taxpayer.”

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