Prime Minister Stephen Harper is getting ready for a Parti Québécois majority in the April 7 provincial election, contacting major leaders across Canada to prepare a concerted federalist response in the event of a sovereigntist victory.
Sources said Mr. Harper has had discussions on the Quebec election with the two main opposition leaders in Ottawa – the NDP's Thomas Mulcair and the Liberal Party's Justin Trudeau – as well as premiers outside of Quebec.
Federal and provincial officials refused to comment at length on the discussions, which were intended to remain private. Still, the overall sense was that Mr. Harper does not want anyone outside of Quebec to provide any political fodder to the PQ during the campaign.
A provincial official said Mr. Harper urged premiers to adopt a policy of "non-interference … don't take the bait, don't provoke."
An adviser to one of the leaders consulted by Mr. Harper added: "It's obvious that the Prime Minister is trying to rise above the partisan fray and to ensure that the federalist side speaks with one voice."
Mr. Harper's series of calls occurred before Quebec Premier Pauline Marois launched the election on Wednesday, sources said.
The PQ Leader is hoping to secure a majority government and launch a consultative process that could lead to a third referendum on sovereignty. So far, Ms. Marois has refused to promise to hold a ballot on the province's future inside the Canadian federation, but she is expected to go for it if she feels it can be won.
"We want to keep the agenda open," Ms. Marois told reporters on the second day of the campaign. "If a referendum is needed, we will take the time to stop and listen to people's opinions. And if we find that it is not relevant to do it, we won't."
Officially, the Prime Minister's Office is promising to watch the Quebec elections from the sidelines. The plan is to respond to false or provocative attacks against the federal government, while avoiding any pro-active intervention. The PMO says it is hoping for the election of a provincial government that believes in a "strong Quebec in a united Canada."
The Liberal Party of Canada is offering its support to its provincial "cousins," openly endorsing the first-time bid of Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, who is running second in recent polls.
The NDP, on the other hand, is staying entirely neutral, refusing to urge party supporters in the province to vote for federalist candidates. There is no NDP provincial wing in Quebec, and the province's main left-wing parties favour Quebec's independence, which complicates matters for Mr. Mulcair.
The Liberals have been particularly critical of Mr. Mulcair's neutrality on the national unity file, feeding a sense of discord in the federalist side.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mulcair made it clear that he is ready to get involved if there is a third referendum on sovereignty, but that he feels moves can be made to avoid one from ever happening again.
"I'm going to do everything I can so that we don't have a third referendum in Quebec. Why the NDP has been fighting so hard for positive winning conditions for Canada in Quebec is we don't want to go through that anymore," Mr. Mulcair said.
The NDP refused to comment on the "private conversation" between Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper. The first mention of the Prime Minister's consultations came in a CBC report stating that Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair recently discussed the Quebec election. The PMO said Mr. Harper regularly speaks with premiers and opposition leaders, but that these "conversations are private."
With reports from Kelly Cryderman in Calgary, Justine Hunter in Victoria, Adrian Morrow in Toronto and Jane Taber in Halifax
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