The Parti Québécois government has chosen a disenchanted Tory to act as its new representative in Ottawa and oversee its dealings with the federal government.
The new head of the Quebec bureau in Ottawa, Richard Le Lay, will take on the delicate task of using his contacts amassed after decades in Canada's small-c conservative movement to promote the interests of Quebec's sovereigntist government.
"Mr. Le Lay is a convinced sovereigntist. His views have evolved over the years, but he still has a large network in Conservative circles, which we hope will help us to get our point of view across," Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier said in an interview.
Mr. Le Lay's roots in Quebec's "blue" circles run deep. In the late 1960s, he worked in the provincial Union Nationale government, under then-minister Marcel Masse. He went on to work in the office of former Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield from 1972 to 1975.
Mr. Le Lay went on to work mainly in the private sector, serving as a senior executive at Domtar Inc. and running his own consulting and communications firm. Still, he never strayed too far from the world of politics, serving in Brian Mulroney's government in 1991-92 and buying a membership in the Conservative Party of Canada (formed through the merger of the PC Party and the Canadian Alliance in 2003).
However, the long-time nationalist has become a full-fledged sovereigntist in recent years, frustrated by the lack of interest in English Canada in amending the Constitution to gain the support of the Quebec government. Mr. Le Lay said he has long been a proponent of renewed federalism, only to become increasingly disenchanted after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990.
"I have changed my allegiance," he said.
Mr. Le Lay explained that he adheres to the ideology that was promoted by former Union Nationale leader Daniel Johnson Sr. in his 1965 pamphlet called "Egalité ou Indépendance."
"I'm on the side of independence because we have never managed to achieve equality," Mr. Le Lay said.
He said that he was attracted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's message to Quebeckers ahead of the 2006 election, in which he spoke of "open federalism" in a well-received speech in Quebec City. However, Mr. Le Lay said that the government did not deliver on its promises, and that he has since cut his political ties with his old allies, while upholding his personal relationships.
"I have never stopped talking to people that I know well in Ottawa, in order to defend Quebec's interests," he said.
The Conservative government welcomed Mr. Le Lay's appointment, stating that Ottawa wants to work with the Quebec government on files of joint interest, including job creation.
"There are a number of files that demand collaboration between our governments, such as [the reconstruction] of Lac-Mégantic in which the federal government will continue to play a constructive role," said Carl Vallée, a spokesman in the Prime Minister's Office.
However, Mr. Cloutier said that he is still waiting for a firm commitment from the federal government to pick up a part of the $150-million decontamination costs in the town that was ravaged by a rail disaster this summer. He said that there are a number of other irritants between Ottawa and Quebec City, including reforms to employment insurance and job training.
"There are a number of hot files, especially related to economic issues, on which we hope to force the federal government to back down," Mr. Cloutier said.
Mr. Le Lay is the latest in the long line of Quebec representatives in Ottawa who have close ideological ties to the government of the day in Quebec City.
His two most recent predecessors – former PC MP André Bachand and former PMO speechwriter Paul Terrien – were close allies of former Quebec premier Jean Charest. The Marois government announced Mr. Terrien's departure last month.