ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The weak minority mandate won by the separatist Parti Quebecois won't provoke a national unity crisis, Tom Mulcair predicted Wednesday.
The federal NDP leader said he doubts premier-elect Pauline Marois has been dealt a strong enough hand to stage another referendum on Quebec independence.
"It's a very short minority and I don't think anybody is going to be rattling that one very soon," Mulcair said outside the NDP's annual summer caucus retreat.
The PQ's weak mandate will likely also spare the NDP from a unity crisis of its own.
A majority separatist government and the prospect of another referendum would have been more problematic for Mulcair. It would draw attention to NDP MPs in Quebec who have supported sovereignty in the past, as well as to the party's controversial position that a bare majority, 50-per-cent-plus-one Yes vote would be sufficient to trigger secession negotiations.
New Democrats could yet be divided over a vow by Marois to demand provincial control over a host of federal jurisdictions, including employment insurance. But Mulcair suggested Marois won't have the time or mandate to indulge in such a ploy, which she's frankly admitted is aimed at demonstrating Quebec's aspiration can't be realized within Canada.
"I don't see that as being in the cards right now," he said.
"With the shortened minority that's been granted to the Parti Quebecois, we're going to probably see a minority government trying to govern the province in the public interest, much more than going for the brass ring of other big constitutional changes."
He said the NDP will work with Marois on "issues of common interest." While he didn't rule out agreeing to some devolution if it's "in the public interest," he nixed the idea of handing over control of EI to Quebec.
Noting that the national program allows for the mobility of workers across the country, Mulcair said EI should remain a federal responsibility.
"You can always improve a program but I think that you have to look at the advantages of national programs that make people's lives better."
Whatever agenda Marois pursues, Mulcair said, Canadian unity is less threatened by the PQ now because for the first time in three decades, Quebec has a strong, federalist, pan-Canadian party — the NDP — holding the majority of the province's 75 federal seats.
"That's a distinct advantage in all of these discussions."
He noted that NDP policy specifically recognizes the merit of "asymmetrical federalism," wherein Quebec is granted powers that other provinces don't have in order to preserve its unique culture and majority French language.
"These are all things that can be worked on. There's nothing divisive about that, unless somebody wants to play politics with it and make it divisive. Where the NDP comes in, we're all about building bridges. We'll let the other parties blow up those bridges."
Mulcair had vowed to create a provincial NDP in time for the next Quebec election. But he acknowledged that an unstable and potentially short-lived minority PQ government will hamper those plans, which presumed a clear four years between provincial elections and no conflict with NDP's first priority: defeating Stephen Harper's Conservatives in the next federal campaign in 2015.
"Last night's result makes that more of a challenge," he said.
"There's a strong demand for a provincial NDP ... But it's less likely and not more likely following last night's results because we're not going to be on standby for the next six months or 12 months or 18 months in a minority government situation."
Mulcair and his fellow MPs expressed shock over the tragic attack outside the PQ hall while Marois was making her victory speech.
Two campaign workers were shot — one fatally — and a fire erupted at the back door to the hall before police arrested a 62-year-old man who said in French that "the English are waking up" as he was taken away.
"We're all in a state of shock because we all live in that (political) world and these are (campaign) workers ... One of them lost their lives."
"It's absolutely inadmissible in our society and our thoughts go to out to those families and those who are close to them."
The NDP caucus retreat opened with a moment of silence for the shooting victims.
Montreal MP Alexandre Boulerice seemed close to tears as he spoke about the tragedy.
"I think when democracy speaks, everybody wins. But when guns talk, we realize how fragile life is and how fragile democracy is as well."
Other MPs said they never expected to see a violent response to an election in Canada.
"This kind of violence is just unacceptable," said Toronto MP Olivia Chow. "It's just shocking and it's really unfortunate. I just can't believe someone would do something like that."