Angelo Persichilli, Harper's New Spokesman, Gets Rough Welcome in Quebec

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MONTREAL - It didn't take long for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's new director of communications to get a taste of life in the hot seat.

Angelo Persichilli has yet to officially begin his duties, but the former journalist is already at the centre of controversy.

Quebec media resurrected a column he wrote last year for the Toronto Star about the province's "annoying lament" over its treatment by the rest of Canada.

The column describes Quebec as "a province that keeps yelling at those who pay part of its bills and are concerned by the overrepresentation of francophones in our bureaucracy, our Parliament and our institutions."

A front-page headline in Montreal Le Devoir on Friday read: (Dimitri) Soudas' Successor Attacks Bilingualism and Whiners from Quebec.

The province's intergovernmental affairs minister described Persichilli's remarks as "inexact."

Pierre Moreau also called on Harper to distance himself from them.

"They are unacceptable," said Moreau. "One (Persichilli) has to explain them and the other (Harper) has to dissociate himself from them."

Moreau said the comments display a "distressing ignorance of reality."

Persichilli's appointment was seen as a nod to ethnic communities, who proved pivotal in helping the Tories secure their long-sought majority.

Along with writing a column for the Star, Persichilli was the political editor of an Italian-language newspaper and a producer of multicultural television programs.

But in thanking ethnic groups, the Prime Minister's Office may have offended Quebecers.

The province is already sensitive about its low visibility within cabinet—a product of electing only five Conservative MPs in the last election.

Many here worry Quebec will cease being a priority for the government after years of outreach by the Tories.

The fact Persichilli doesn't speak French has only amplified these concerns, further proof in the eyes of some that the Tories are already turning their back on the province.

"It indicates, at least, that Mr. Harper has chosen to abandon Quebec in all of this," said NDP MP Romeo Saganash, who represents the northern Quebec riding of Abitibi-Baie-James-Nunavik-Eeyou.

"I think he believes he doesn't need Quebec anymore because Quebecers didn't vote for him. That's not very prime ministerial, in my opinion."

An umbrella group of the province's nationalist organizations, the Mouvement national des Quebecois, called Persichilli's comments "anti-francophone."

It added that it was unacceptable for the prime minister's senior communications adviser to be unable to speak French.

The Parti Quebecois asked Harper to distance himself from Persichilli's comments.

"Mr. Harper knows very well the consequences of this type of completely unacceptable comment," said Bernard Drainville, the party's intergovernmental affairs critic.

"The Canadian prime minister has always condemned Quebec bashing within English Canada... I am certain that he does not share the comments of his director of communications."

The prime minister's new-look communications team wasted little time trying to correct the perception that Quebec no longer figures on the government's agenda.

"The prime minister has been quite clear—both on the morning after the election and at the party convention—that Quebec will remain at the heart of our government," said Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall.

"We will continue to practice open federalism and to build our support in the province through our low-tax plan for jobs and growth."

Even though Persichilli is said to be learning French, his appointment may nevertheless reflect where the Tories feel their political future lies.

Soudas was from Quebec, spoke French fluently and played a key role crafting the Tories' strategy in the province.

Quebec, however, has proven to be an electoral wasteland for the Conservatives.

Toronto's multi-ethnic neighbourhoods, Persichilli's stomping ground, were a different matter. There they won 30 of the Greater Toronto Area's 45 seats.

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