ST.-NARCISSE-DE-BEAURIVAGE, Que. - The Conservative government tried Sunday to downplay concerns about its difficulties in Quebec, saying it has shared interests with the province and is prepared to work with whatever political party is in power.
Christian Paradis, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant, suggested the Conservatives would find common ground if the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois won the next provincial election.
"No matter what government is elected, we're going to work with the Government of Quebec," said Paradis, who was joined by Harper at a gathering near Quebec City for the province's annual Fete nationale.
"We can't always be in harmony with the province of Quebec, but I think what you need to do is identify our common interests and need to grow."
The prime minister's chilled relationship with Quebec has been under increased scrutiny since The Canadian Press revealed his recent secret meetings in Montreal with former prime minister Brian Mulroney and Liberal Premier Jean Charest.
Harper went to them for advice on the national unity issue — which some fear could rise again if the Parti Quebecois unseats Charest's unpopular Liberals.
There was a time, following his business dealings with German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber, that Harper wanted nothing to do with Mulroney. But Paradis said the former prime minister was sought out because he has valuable experience relating to Quebec. Paradis added that he's glad the story was made public.
"People should be happy to see our prime minister sit down and seek advice for such people like that, for whom we should have a lot of respect," he said.
The Conservatives are trying to revive flagging Tory fortunes in Quebec, where the party won just five of 75 federal seats in the last election. Relations have been stormy between the Conservatives and the Charest Liberals lately, and there's worry that things would only get worse under the PQ.
Quebec recently launched legal action to preserve long-gun registry data and the provincial legislature came out against the appointment of unilingual anglophones in important positions at the federal level.
In a speech to about 200 people, Harper took pains to point out the efforts he had made on behalf of Quebecers over the years.
He noted that the Conservative government had given the province special status as part of Canada's delegation to UNESCO. He also recalled the adoption of a motion in Parliament recognizing Quebec as a nation, and $2.2 billion in compensation handed over to the province for harmonizing its sales tax.
"These are concrete actions that demonstrate the commitment of our government to help Quebec flourish and make Canada stronger and more united than ever," Harper said.
One political analyst, however, said any attempt at a charm offensive may be too late at this stage.
"I think a lot of people feel he has written off the province," said Eric Grenier, who runs the popular polling website threehundredeight.com.
Harper is polling at around 15 per cent approval in the province, even lower than the struggling Charest, Grenier said.
The Harper government has a limited presence in the province and many complain of feeling disconnected from Ottawa. The prime minister is, for instance, the only prominent political leader to have systematically refused an invitation to appear on Tout Le Monde En Parle. The wildly popular talk show is a basic forum to communicate with Quebecers.
His heritage minister, James Moore, won plaudits just for appearing recently, though he was given a tough time by the hosts. Other politicians have seen their popularity spike immediately after an appearance, including the NDP's Jack Layton in the last election.
Meanwhile, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who remains popular in the province, joined tens of thousands Sunday at the Fete nationale parade in Montreal. Mulcair said Harper should have reached out to Quebecers long ago.
"Every time we tried to convince him to give real substance to the recognition of Quebecers as a nation, he said no," Mulcair told reporters at the parade. "He can get advice if he wants, but it may be too little, too late."
PQ Leader Pauline Marois, who was also in attendance, suggested Harper was right to be concerned, citing a long list of policies she said run contrary to Quebec values.
At this point, Grenier said, there's no one among the Conservatives who could rally the federalist side if Marois wins the next election.
"If another national unity crisis pops up, the federalist voice will almost certainly be Thomas Mulcair," he said.
Paradis said that, should another debate over national unity arise, all Conservatives — and anyone that wants a united Canada — would have to join forces.
"All the federalists will have to do it all together," he said.
— with files from Benjamin Shingler and Melanie Marquis in Montreal