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Justin Trudeau held his first caucus meeting as Liberal Leader on Wednesday.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Justin Trudeau is defending Quebec Liberal Denis Coderre, who is being accused of organizing a not-so-subtle campaign for the mayoralty of Montreal while continuing to collect his $157,000 salary as an MP.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Coderre acknowledged he is nearing an announcement on a possible transition to city politics, which has been in the works for months. Mr. Coderre said he is being encouraged to run by "many people" but does not have a campaign team. "In coming days and weeks, I will make a decision," he said.

Still, he has been holding a large number of meetings with business officials and various municipal politicians in the city that is undergoing large-scale political turmoil, according to recent reports in Montreal newspapers.

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The Conservative Party is arguing that Mr. Coderre should quickly quit his federal job if he intends to run in the Nov. 3 Montreal elections.

The question is one of the first real tests Mr. Trudeau has faced around party discipline since he won the leadership – and it came after his first address to caucus Wednesday. Despite the brewing controversy, Mr. Trudeau said he will not ask Mr. Coderre to quit his seat and that it was "up to him to decide on his timetable."

Conservative MP and junior minister Maxime Bernier said that the situation involving Mr. Coderre is untenable.

"He is working in Ottawa at the same time as he is promoting his candidacy in Montreal," Mr. Bernier said. "What are his priorities? They should be in Ottawa, and if they aren't, he needs to announce his colours as quickly as possible."

Mr. Coderre turned heads the previous day in Question Period when he worried about the potential impact on Montrealers – his possible future electors – of proposed Conservative tariff hikes on consumer goods across the country.

"When tariffs are raised on imports, it's like a tax increase," he said, before listing examples. "It means that Montrealers will be paying more; it's not complicated, Montrealers will pay more."

Both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Coderre said the comment was a friendly "wink" to the residents of his riding of Bourassa and hometown.

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"His question was of interest for all Canadians. He talked about the challenges of the middle class and a tax increase on everyday products," Mr. Trudeau said.

Mr. Trudeau left Ottawa after Question Period for his first official trip as Liberal Leader to Quebec City to hold meetings on Thursday with Liberal Party of Quebec Leader Philippe Couillard and Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault. He added that he will meet Quebec Premier Pauline Marois "on another occasion," blaming scheduling for their inability to connect during the current trip.

Mr. Trudeau announced that former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae will become his foreign affairs critic, taking over from Liberal MP and House Leader Dominic LeBlanc. Former leadership contender Marc Garneau takes over as critic for natural resources from Ted Hsu, who inherits the postsecondary education file.

Mr. Trudeau on Wednesday led his first caucus meeting, where he used the 31st anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – which his father's government adopted in 1982 – to attack the NDP over its desire to reform the Constitution.

"The NDP has always been particularly lukewarm in its approach to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because of the unfortunate way that Quebec has chosen not to sign on the Constitution," Mr. Trudeau said at a postcaucus news conference. "There is a political game with hard-line sovereigntists and strong nationalists, and Mr. Mulcair is continuing to play with it."

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair shot back that Mr. Trudeau was engaging in the negative and divisive politics that he has denounced.

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The party insisted it supports the Charter, calling it "an example the world over." However, the NDP added that it wants to correct the historical fact that Quebec is still not a signatory to the Constitution.

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