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Tories zero in on Quebec with olive branch to separatists

Stephen Harper throws a washer at a gathering for Saint-Jean Baptiste Day in St. Narcisse de Beaurivage, Que., Sunday.

MATHIEU BELANGER/REUTERS

Stephen Harper and more than a dozen of his cabinet ministers chose Quebec to kick off the Tories' political "summer of love," wooing support with their economic plan and a pledge to work with the Parti Québécois if it is elected to govern the province.

Surrounded by about 18 cabinet ministers, Mr. Harper celebrated Saint-Jean Baptiste Day Sunday in MP Jacques Gourde's riding, just southwest of Quebec City, while a surprising statement was issued by the Prime Minister's Quebec lieutenant Christian Paradis: The Conservatives are prepared to work with the separatist Parti Québécois.

The olive branch to the PQ is a recognition that the Tories are working to shore up support in Quebec. Mr. Harper met with former prime minister Brian Mulroney in recent days, reportedly to seek advice on how to repair his relationship with the province.

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The story was much different last summer, as MPs decompressed from a federal election campaign that saw the Harper Tories win their first majority government, but lose badly in Quebec. Sunday's move was the antithesis of an election strategy that attacked the PQ and the federal Bloc Québécois as agents of Canada's demise, and accused the Liberals and NDP of working with separatists.

Mr. Gourde is one of only five Conservative MPs in Quebec. He was joined for the festivities by cabinet heavyweights such as Mr. Paradis, Heritage Minister James Moore, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, House Leader Peter Van Loan and Labour Minister Lisa Raitt.

Conservative observer Tim Powers, a consultant with Summa Strategies, said that Tories want everyone to remember "why 40 per cent of Canadians succumbed to their charms last year.

"The wooing starts in Quebec today," he said.

Andrew MacDougall, the Prime Minister's director of communications, warned not to get too excited about Mr. Paradis's comments: "This is all hypothetical as there isn't even an election. When that time does come, it will be up to Quebeckers to decide who to vote for."

In addition to focusing on Quebec, Mr. Harper and his MPs will be spending the summer emphasizing his government's economic policies, contrasting what they see as a Canadian success story with the situation in Europe.

"We expect the economy to be the big issue this summer," said Mr. MacDougall. "As you're aware the euro-zone crisis is threatening the global economy. The Prime Minister, cabinet and all members of the caucus will be out across the country promoting our Economic Action Plan, a plan that will create jobs, growth and long-term prosperity in all regions of the country."

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Senior cabinet minister Marjory LeBreton, the government leader in the Senate, said that it's obvious a Tory government would work with whichever government is in power in the province and "respect the electorate of Quebec."

"I actually believe that regular hard-working, taxpaying Quebeckers ... if they think about it, like most Canadians, they would be very supportive of what we are doing," she said, in reference to the economy.

Ms. Raitt said Sunday that her summer will be spent in her Ontario riding "first listening to and of course talking to people about our budget and our plan for long-term prosperity and how we want to make sure that jobs are there."

Her Calgary colleague Michelle Rempel says the Prime Minister's message from the recent G20 summit that Canada is "an island of stability" is one that resonates with Canadians and one that she believes will be an easy sell on the summer circuit.

In contrast, she says that the Liberals are basically back at "ground zero" as they search for a new leader. Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae announced recently that he would not seek the permanent leadership of the party, leaving the field wide open.

"I expect those thinking about leadership will be out and about as well, and more power to them," said Mr. Rae, noting that he is attending Canada Day and Gay Pride celebrations in Toronto and will be at the Calgary Stampede.

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Analysts are calling this the "summer of love" as politicians of all stripes try to romance Canadians, competing on the barbecue circuit.

Quebec Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, touted as a possible leadership contender, was also out working the crowds on Saint-Jean Baptiste Day. He commented to The Globe on the Conservative pledge to work with the PQ : "If the Tories are truly willing to work with the PQ, that'll be the first time they've worked with any provincial government."

The NDP is leading the Conservatives in the polls – and NDP MPs are feeling pretty good about things right now.

"NDP MPs are pumped to make the most of the summer with fund-raising, outreach and organizing activities," says spokesman Karl Bélanger.

He said the Harper economic message does not "jibe with his prescription of ... cutting into employment insurance and forcing people to retire at 67 years old by cutting into their pension security."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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