Voters gave the premier-designate a narrow four-seat victory — a margin far too thin to bear the weight of something as significant as Quebec separating from Canada, Harper said in a televised interview with Bloomberg News.
"The people of Quebec voted for change, a pretty strong desire for change.... At the same time, I think it was pretty clear they were denying any kind of a mandate to pursue the separation of Quebec or the division of the country," he said.
"That's certainly how we interpret it, and that's how the government of Quebec will be forced to interpret it, one way or the other."
Harper was addressing an elite business gathering in Vancouver before jetting off to the Pacific coast of Russia for the APEC leaders summit, which transpires this weekend.
His remarks on Quebec were his first since Marois eked out a narrow minority election win on Tuesday — one that cost Liberal Leader Jean Charest his seat in the National Assembly.
In Charest, federalists are losing one of their strongest voices in Quebec — a void it will fall to Ottawa to fill in the coming months.
Harper echoed what senior Conservatives have already suggested — that efforts are already underway to find common ground between Quebec City and Ottawa. The principal criteria will be that it be in the shared best interests of Quebec and Canada.
"I've indicated to the premier (that), as with all provinces, we will continue to be focused on the interests of the Canadian economy," Harper said — specifically creating jobs and stoking the fires of long-term economic growth.
"It's our focus across the country."
Marois has vowed to demand control over employment insurance and more power over foreign aid, culture and social programs.
Players like Christian Paradis, Harper's industry minister and Quebec lieutenant, have already made it clear they're willing to talk — but anything that would necessitate constitutional change, such as EI, is off the table.
"We're in good faith here, we're going to continue with that road,'' Paradis — one of only five Conservative MPs in Quebec — said on Wednesday.
"If the requests are simply to sabotage the federal government, of course, we, the federal government, won't necessarily be able to reach common ground."
Indeed, there were signs Thursday that the season of political gamesmanship over the Quebec question has already begun.
With NDP MPs gathered for a caucus retreat in St. John's, many found themselves deflecting questions about a media report that said the Liberals were contemplating a motion asking Parliament to reaffirm its support for the Clarity Act.
The act stipulates that the federal government would require a clear majority to vote in support of a clear referendum question on Quebec independence before it would consider negotiating the terms of a divorce.
The NDP supported the Clarity Act when it was introduced in 1999 by the Liberal government of Jean Chretien, in response to the country's near-death experience in the 1995 Quebec referendum.
However, New Democrats adopted the Sherbrooke declaration in 2005, which says — among other things — that the NDP would regard a vote of 50 per cent plus one to be sufficiently clear to trigger secession talks.
Given how unlikely it is that another referendum on Quebec's future will take place any time soon, given the PQ's weak mandate, a Liberal motion on the Clarity Act would do little beyond sow dissension in NDP ranks and raise doubts among Canadians outside Quebec about the NDP's commitment to national unity.
Regardless, the speculation had New Democrats scrambling Thursday. Aides hustled MPs away from microphones as they were peppered with questions about the NDP's controversial policy on Quebec.
"It's a solid piece of work and we stand by it," deputy leader Libby Davies said of the Sherbrooke declaration.
A narrow majority of 50 plus one would be considered "a staggering endorsement of a member of Parliament," added northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus.
"What's very important here is you have to treat the democratic will of the people with respect," Angus said. The NDP swept Quebec in 2011 precisely because the Sherbrooke declaration showed the party is willing to trust and respect Quebecers, he added.
Paradis, for his part, denounced both parties Thursday for using sovereignty as a political football.
"It's deplorable and terribly irresponsible to see the two opposition parties playing petty politics with such an important issue," he said in a statement.
"Quebecers were clear: they don't want to revisit old constitutional squabbles and we should all respect their will. Rather, they want us to address the real issues facing their families, such as the economy and job creation."
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