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PM to meet new Quebec premier in courtesy call

Liberal leader Philippe Couillard responds to questions following the leaders' debate Thursday, Thursday, March 20, 2014 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will travel to Quebec to meet the province's new Premier on Thursday, highlighting the impact of Philippe Couillard's victory on relations with Ottawa, federal and provincial sources said.

Mr. Couillard, who leads the federalist Quebec Liberal Party, will be sworn in on Wednesday as Quebec's 31st premier. He is expected to meet the following day with Mr. Harper, who wants to put an end to the chill that characterized his dealings with the province's previous Parti Québécois government.

"On both sides, people want to see a thaw in Ottawa-Quebec relations," said a provincial official. "Of late, it had been going nowhere."

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The meeting is expected to take place alongside the Gala Triomphe, a sporting awards event in Quebec City that will feature Mayor Régis Labeaume, athletes and Marcel Aubut, the head of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

No one is expecting the meeting between Mr. Harper and Mr. Couillard to lead to formal agreements or quick fixes to existing squabbles. Instead, the meeting is characterized by government officials as a courtesy call that will aim to ensure smoother relations between the two governments over the long term.

A more in-depth encounter will take place at a later date.

"This first meeting will happen as part of another event. It will be the first opportunity to establish a contact with Mr. Harper soon after the government takes power," said a provincial official. "Economic issues and jobs will dominate discussions, especially our maritime program that will need federal involvement."

By contrast, Mr. Harper did not go out of his way to see the PQ's Pauline Marois after her election in 2012. The pair's first meeting occurred more than a month after her victory when they both attended, with their respective delegations, a Francophonie summit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mr. Couillard won a strong majority on April 7, ousting the PQ minority government after less than two years in office with a consistent anti-referendum message.

Mr. Couillard mused about the need to reform the Constitution after becoming Leader of the Quebec Liberals, but the main planks in his election platform were job creation and economic growth. His agenda fits nicely with the federal Conservative government's priorities in its provincial relations.

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"I expect the meeting to occur shortly after Mr. Couillard's swearing-in," said a spokesman for the Prime Minister, Carl Vallée, in a statement. "We are impatient at the prospect of working with the new government on the priorities of Quebeckers, namely the economy and jobs."

There are still a number of irritants on both sides, including Ottawa's decision to impose tolls on the new Champlain Bridge between Montreal and the south shore of the St. Lawrence. The link is expected to be completed in 2018, but most politicians in Quebec object to the plan to make commuters pick up a part of the tab.

Other contentious issues include Ottawa's plan to create a national securities commission, and federal regulations that go against the interests of Quebec ice-wine producers, according to the provincial government.

However, the Quebec Liberals are hoping that Mr. Couillard will have more success than Ms. Marois in dealing with these issues.

"Under Mr. Couillard, the approach will change. Alliances will be built with other provinces to put pressure on Ottawa," a provincial source said.

Mr. Harper deliberately avoided intervening in the last Quebec election, calling on other party leaders and premiers to avoid giving any fuel to the sovereigntist movement. However, Mr. Harper did not hesitate to clearly state that he was happy with the results after the election.

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"I congratulated [Mr. Couillard] and noted that Quebeckers have rejected having another referendum. They want a government that is focused on the economy and job creation. Those are our priorities as well, and we look forward to working with this new premier," Mr. Harper said in the House on April 8.

The pair know one another. In 2010, Mr. Harper appointed Mr. Couillard as a member of the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

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