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NDP Leader Jack Layton is greeted by supporters at a campaign stop in Surrey, B.C., on March 27, 2011.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Jack Layton says Stephen Harper is expressing "false outrage" over the possibility of a future coalition government given that he himself tried to orchestrate just such a union with the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois in 2004.

The Conservative Leader called the NDP Leader and Gilles Duceppe to a meeting in Montreal after former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin was elected with a minority. The three men then sent a letter to then-governor-general Adrienne Clarkson in September, 2004, urging her to consider options other than an election should Mr. Martin's government fall.

"What Mr. Harper was intending to do, it's absolutely crystal clear to me, was to attempt to become prime minister even though he had not received the most seats in the House. And that letter was designed to illustrate that such an option is legitimate in Canadian constitutional traditions and there was no question about it," Mr. Layton told reporters Sunday morning in his first new conference of the election campaign. "I was in meetings where this was discussed."

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Mr. Harper accuses Michael Ignatieff of planning to form a coalition government with the NDP and Bloc, even if the Conservatives come out ahead in the May 2 vote - something the Liberal Leader has vowed not to do.

The Conservatives say the 2004 letter did not constitute a coalition agreement. But Mr. Layton said "it certainly was one of the options that was discussed around the table."

The NDP Leader said contradictions like this have caused him to conclude that Mr. Harper can't be trusted on fundamental matters.

"For me it's a question of trust. I do not believe you can trust Mr. Harper with his word," Mr. Layton said. "And I think this recent position that he's taking now that the idea of parties working together is somehow contrary to Canadian institutions and totally unacceptable is a false outrage because he was willing to do that himself when he would have become prime minister."

As for Mr. Harper's condemnation of parties that are willing to work with the separatist Bloc Québécois, Mr. Layton said he finds that position ironic.

"Mr. Harper has, on many occasions, worked with the Bloc including to keep his own government in power on motions of confidence," he said. "He responded to Bloc demands in his first two budgets so that the Bloc would support his budgets and he would stay in power. "

When a coalition government was discussed with the Liberals in 2008, the Bloc was explicitly not to be part of it, Mr. Layton said, but "in 2004, Mr. Harper seemed to be prepared to work with the Bloc so that he could become prime minister counting on the Bloc support."

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Mr. Layton spent Sunday morning courting the huge Sikh population in this Vancouver suburb promising to address some of the past slights of the Conservative government perceived by the highly political ethnic community.

"Unlike Stephen Harper, I will ensure hard-earned foreign credentials are recognized in Canada and I will take action to right the injustice of the Komagata Maru," Mr. Layton told supporters at a rally in a Surrey hotel. "What's the point of flashing images of the Komagata Maru in ads when that party refuses to apologize for the injustice to the community in the House of Commons?"

The Komagata Maru was a Japanese steamship that that sailed from Hong Kong to British Columbian 1914, carrying 376 passengers from Punjab, India, most of them Sikh. But they were not allowed to land in Canada, and the ship was forced to return to India.

It has been a sore point. As Prime Minister, Mr. Harper apologized for the incident but many in the community remain dissatisfied because the apology was not made in Parliament.

Securing votes among the ethnic communities that populate the suburbs of Canada's largest cities will be a key challenge for all of the parties during this campaign.

The Conservatives have devoted much of their significant financial resources to the task and have had some success. Nina Grewal, a Sikh, has represented the nearby riding of Fleetwood-Port Kells since 2004. The Liberals too have seen Sukh Dhaliwal elected in Newton-North Delta and Ujjal Dosanjh elected in Vancouver South.

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But, although the New Democrats have relied on British Columbia for a large amount of their federal support - nine of their 36 MPs who held seats when the government fell were from the province - they have not had the same success with the Sikhs.

This time around, they are running Jasbir Sandhu in Surrey North, where the party came within 1,100 votes of defeating Conservative Dona Cadman in 2008.

"Sat Sree Akaal Jee," Mr. Layton told the crowd, a Punjabi welcome.

The message of the day was much the same as it was in Edmonton on Saturday: "Only New Democrats defeat Conservatives," the NDP Leader said.

Mr. Layton also addressed the new harmonized sales tax, a policy supported by the federal Conservatives with the help of the Liberals, that has been a point of contention in British Columbia. "After the HST fiasco, I would say that British Columbians are ready to send the Ottawa Conservatives a message and kick Stephen Harper out of office," Mr. Layton said.

In 2008, he said New Democrats were first or second to the Conservatives in two-thirds of B.C. ridings. "And that was before every single Conservative MP voted yes to the HST."

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The rally took place at the Sheraton Guildford, the same hotel where Conservative officials prevented reporters from being able to talk to Ms. Cadman during the last election. Although she successfully ran as a Tory, she had maintained that the Conservative Party offered her dying husband Chuck, the riding's incumbent, a million dollar life insurance policy if he would vote to defeat the Liberal government.

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