Michael Ignatieff moved to woo Quebec nationalists and bring them into the Liberal fold Thursday, saying that the Bloc Québécois has kept the province's francophone electorate on the sidelines for far too long.
While saying he will not use constitutional promises to entice Quebeckers to vote for the Liberal Party, Mr. Ignatieff said it's time to stop voting for the Bloc, which has won a majority of seats in Quebec in every election since 1993.
The result, he said, is that Quebeckers have lost their say in who forms the government of Canada.
"In the last election, Quebeckers protested against the right-wing government of Stephen Harper, and many Quebeckers voted for the Bloc Québécois," he said in a fundraising speech last night. "Quebeckers protested, but Stephen Harper is still there."
The option, Mr. Ignatieff said, is for Quebeckers to help the Liberals return to power. In exchange, he said, the Liberals will ensure that Quebeckers get a real taste of power.
"The best Canada possible is a Canada inspired by Quebec. The best Canada possible is a Canada with Quebeckers in power," he said to the audience of about 1,000 people. "I invite you to build a better Canada, with me."
The way to 24 Sussex and to the government for the party passes through Quebec. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff
In an interview before the speech, Mr. Ignatieff said he will increase the number of first ministers' conferences if he becomes Prime Minister, and work toward increasing interprovincial trade. But he insisted he will not offer major jurisdictional shifts to win over Quebec.
"I certainly don't have a constitutional package in my back pocket, and I don't think Canadians or Quebeckers expect me to," he said. "Let's make the federation work as a practical, operational, day-to-day matter, above all on working together to get us out of the economic crisis."
Mr. Ignatieff used the example of the provincial government of Quebec Premier Jean Charest.
"I think Quebeckers know that they have a Charest government, just to take that example, which is committed to federalism, but uses to the full the jurisdictions that it has control of, and it does an excellent job," he said.
The Liberal Leader promised to bring Quebeckers to the centre of his government if he wins the next election, saying he depends on the province to reach his goal.
"The way to 24 Sussex and to the government for the party passes through Quebec," he said.
Still, Mr. Ignatieff faces a number of challenges before he increases Liberal support in Quebec and forms the next government.
First off, he has to replace the Conservatives who have worked to resolve long-standing irritants with the government of Quebec, such as the fiscal imbalance, and who continuously attack him as a centralizing politician in the mould of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Secondly, Mr. Ignatieff has to contend with the Bloc Québécois and its incessant calls for more concessions for the Québécois nation, which was recognized in the House of Commons in large part thanks to Mr. Ignatieff in 2006.
Finally, the Liberal brand is still hampered by the sponsorship scandal, and Mr. Ignatieff's opponents are rehashing his past statements, such as his 1992 comment that it might be best to call Quebec's bluff and let the province separate from Canada.
The Bloc leads in Quebec with 48 seats, followed by the Liberals at 14 and the Conservatives at 10. There is also one NDP MP, one independent MP and one vacancy. Recent public-opinion polls in the province suggest that the Liberals could win more seats in the next election, while Conservative ridings are increasingly fragile.
The Liberals said they sold 1,000 tickets at $500 each for the fundraiser, which attracted senior members of the Montreal business community. The Conservatives attracted about twice more people to a recent Montreal event, but the tickets were cheaper at $150.
Liberals joked yesterday that they didn't have to bus anyone in from the rest of the province to fill their hall.
Mr. Ignatieff said that in his opinion, Quebeckers have rejected the values and vision of the Conservative Party. "The wind has gone out of those sails," he said in the interview.
One of the moments in his speech that generated the biggest applause came as he denounced last year's Conservative cuts to cultural programs.
He said the Bloc "is not a solution to get rid of Stephen Harper. The Bloc Québécois is not a solution for a Canada that will truly be Quebec's home."