OTTAWA - The potential for a national unity crisis to emerge out of the next Quebec provincial election has prompted Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do something he has refused to do for years:
Meet with former prime minister Brian Mulroney.
Stephen Harper held a secret meeting in a Montreal hotel with Mulroney last week, The Canadian Press has learned, to seek advice on forming a better relationship with Quebec.
He sought similar advice that same day from Liberal Premier Jean Charest, government sources said.
The meetings came ahead of a planned Conservative rally in Quebec this weekend where the prime minister is going to try again to restart the stalled Tory machine in the province.
He needs to get it roaring not just to increase his paltry number of just five Quebec MPs.
A provincial by-election in Quebec last week saw the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois win a riding that's been held by the Liberals for 46 years.
It suggests the party's strength is growing as support for the current Liberal government melts from the heat of sustained student protests and a provincial election is expected in the fall.
If another national unity debate springs from a PQ victory, Harper would be in an enfeebled position relative to his predecessors: his Conservative party polls in the low teens in Quebec and there is no effective spokesperson for federalist forces in the governing party.
The sit-down with Mulroney signals how skittish the federal government is about their continued failure to connect with Quebecers.
In 2007, Harper excommunicated the former prime minister over his business dealings with German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber.
Relations have slowly been warming since, setting the stage for Harper to seek Mulroney's advice on how to appeal to a province that once embraced Conservatives but have now all but written them off.
Mulroney still remains a respected political figure in the Quebec and probably knows it better than any current Conservative, while Harper can't shake the stereotype of being a Western cowboy out of touch with la belle province.
Several members of Harper's cabinet, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Defence Minister Peter MacKay, have regular discussions with Mulroney.
In 2006, Harper's newly-minted minority government, with 10 MPs in Quebec, celebrated St. Jean Baptiste Day with a full cabinet retreat in the provincial capital.
This year, it will be a BBQ in the riding of one of his five elected MPs, though a handful of cabinet ministers will also be on hand.
The advice Harper received from Charest and Mulroney is expected to figure prominently in the prime minister's speech on Sunday, where he will seek to remind Quebecers of his commitment to giving greater powers to the provinces and his respect for Quebec's place in the federation.
But with effectively no political machine in the province and a year of majority government that has seen Quebec constantly irritated by everything from the end of the gun registry to changes to employment insurance, it won't be an easy sell.
The New Democrats continue to maintain their political hold following last year's surge to Opposition status that came thanks to Quebec.
Conservative cabinet ministers insist their message of economic stewardship will eventually resonate.
It's about showing who has Quebec's best interests at heart, suggested Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who is also Harper's Quebec lieutenant.
"...Quebecers will turn to our party _ the only party that believes in low taxes, the only party that knows how to manage the economy in a prudent and stable way, and the only one who believes in a proud and autonomous Quebec nation within a strong, united and independent Canada," he wrote in an email.
But one of the few Tory MPs with any star power in the province _ Maxime Bernier _ acknowledged there's a challenge in communicating that message.
"They are policies that perhaps not as popular today, but they are policies that are necessary for the long-term viability of the economic recovery," he said.
And should a referendum rear its head, there's the real risk that the Tories' economic agenda will be tossed off course.
Studies of the 1995 referendum show the Canadian dollar and interest rates took a hit in the run up to the vote because of political uncertainty created by the question of whether Quebec would separate.
"In the month of the referendum, the Canadian dollar was particularly vulnerable to what appeared to be growing support for sovereignty as indicated in the frequent public opinion polls," said a 1996 study for the U.S. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
The authors went on to find that "...after it was known that the sovereignty question had been narrowly defeated the Canadian dollar moved sharply higher, and Canadian interest rates fell."
But the problem is broader than that, suggested longtime Quebec Tory Peter White.
If the election of a PQ government does eventually result in another election on the question of separation, who is going to wave the maple leaf?
"Who is there from the federal government to lead the no side in the same way (Liberal Prime Minister Jean)Chretien led in the last referendum?," White said.
No one ever speaks in favour of Harper in Quebec and in fact he is reviled there, White said.
"If there's an election pitting Harper against (PQ Leader Pauline) Marois, Marois wins hands down, he said.
"And that is a problematical scenario."