At first blush, it seemed like a minor announcement: $8.2-million in funding to open up a steep road to winter drivers on federal land in Quebec City.
For the Harper government, however, it was a major deal as the Prime Minister, three of his ministers and six other members of the Conservative caucus showed up for the event. In addition to providing a cheque for the redevelopment of Gilmour Hill, Stephen Harper wanted to showcase his renewed commitment to making up lost ground in Quebec, now that he has a new team in place.
Mr. Harper has just reshaped his Quebec operations, getting rid of his top Quebec adviser a few weeks after replacing his regional minister from the province. Conservative insiders said the moves aim to place more energetic faces at the forefront of the government's operations in Quebec, with an eye on reclaiming some of the seats – mainly in and around Quebec City – that were lost to the NDP in 2011.
The latest change happened in the Prime Minister's Office, where Catherine Loubier, a former Conservative staffer, is returning to operate as Quebec adviser after a stint in the private sector in Montreal. She will be replacing André Bachand, a former Progressive Conservative MP who held the job for the past two years as the party sank in the polls in the province.
While Ms. Loubier will work largely in the shadows, she can be expected to bring a more forceful Quebec voice inside the PMO.
"She is much more aggressive than Bachand, she will be a louder and more persistent voice around the table," a Conservative source said.
Mr. Harper promoted Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel as his Quebec lieutenant in last month's cabinet shuffle, replacing the underperforming Christian Paradis, who became Minister of International Development. Mr. Lebel is a more experienced politician, having been a mayor in the Lac-St-Jean region, and he brings a more jovial presence to his public pronouncements than his predecessor.
Another Quebec MP who has a more important role is Steven Blaney, the new Minister of Public Safety who comes from Lévis, just south of Quebec City, and never misses an opportunity to promote his government's achievements.
While the PMO declined to publicly discuss its Quebec strategy, a Conservative source said Mr. Lebel and Ms. Loubier will be expected to find new ways to spread the party's message in Quebec, with a strong emphasis on hard work and being constantly on the ground, throughout the province.
"What needs to be done remains the same. The question is whether the person responsible to do it will actually do it," the source said.
Another insider said the hope among Conservatives in the province is that Ms. Loubier and Mr. Lebel will ensure that the Prime Minister and his government show "a greater sensibility" to Quebec issues. The Conservatives have been tone deaf on some Quebec issues, and have frequently failed to find a way to counter opposition attacks against their policies, insiders said.
"We have a steep hill to climb … no pun intended with the [Gilmour Hill] announcement," a Conservative source said.
Quebec City is the priority for the Conservatives, who lost all of their seats in the city in the past election after having refused to provide any federal funding to a new hockey arena.
However small, the funding to transform Gilmour Hill into a year-round road is the type of announcement that is crucial for Conservative fortunes. First off, it allowed Mr. Harper to make the announcement alongside the popular mayor of Quebec City, Régis Labeaume, who can make or break the aspirations of the various political formations seeking to win seats in his city.
Second, Mr. Harper said the project will ease winter traffic congestion by opening up the road that runs through the National Battlefields Park, adding it was only the latest in a long list of federal projects in the city.
"The important thing is to improve the lives of people here," Mr. Harper said.
Mr. Harper, who has only five MPs in Quebec, said he is trying to maximize the impact of his small team. That might explain why he ensured that his new bilingual Minister of Heritage, Manitoba's Shelley Glover, was also present with his Quebec team at the Gilmour Hill announcement.
"Quebec is obviously an important part of the country, and despite the small team that I have in Ottawa, we are determined to ensure the full participation of Quebec in our government," Mr. Harper said.