QUEBEC - Stephen Harper showed little interest in talking about the Parti Quebecois government's treatment of the Canadian flag during a visit to Quebec City on Friday.
The prime minister arrived in the provincial capital to news that the new pro-independence government had taken steps this week to officially yank the Maple Leaf from the provincial legislature.
The move to pull the flag from its sole spot in the national assembly met with noisy resistance from provincial opposition parties — but not from the federal prime minister, who steered clear of the controversy when asked about it.
"What can I say?" Harper replied, paused, and drew chuckles from an audience.
"What I can say is our priority, for the people of Quebec and for the rest of Canada, is the economy. I think that's the real priority of Quebecers — not old quarrels. I have no intention of participating in those old debates."
That drew applause from a friendly crowd, as Harper announced federal plans to rebuild Quebec City's historic military armoury that was destroyed by fire four years ago.
If Harper showed little inclination to speak about the PQ, he was no more eager Friday to speak with it.
The provincial government was miffed that it was not involved in the planning of the armoury repairs or in the announcement event, which took place near the provincial legislature.
Harper did appear at the $100 million announcement with the popular local mayor, Regis Labeaume. But there was no sign of the provincial government.
Harper insisted that wasn't his doing.
"This is, of course, strictly a federal announcement. We did extend an invitation to the (province's) regional minister who, I gather, was unable to attend," Harper said.
That provincial minister later explained that she was, indeed, invited — on Friday morning, before the announcement. Agnes Maltais, also the provincial MNA for the area, said she had another event scheduled and couldn't make it.
Harper did not plan to meet with Premier Pauline Marois during his trip, and pointed out that he did meet with the premier during the recent Francophonie summit in Congo.
His public appearance Friday took place in the shadow of the provincial assembly, the scene of a dispute over the Canadian flag.
The ornate upper chamber of the legislature, which is used for committee meetings and special ceremonies, is the only visible spot in the building where the Maple Leaf hangs.
Yves-Francois Blanchet, the PQ government whip, made a formal request to remove it Thursday, on the 36th anniversary of the election of the first PQ government in 1976.
That PQ government, under then-premier Rene Levesque, was actually the first to put the Quebec flag in the legislature chamber where the daily debates take place in 1976 and then the upper chamber in 1983. The Maple Leaf was only added later, whenever the federalist Liberals held office.
"Historically the Canadian flag wasn't present in the Quebec national assembly," Blanchet said in an interview.
"It didn't have a place there. As occurs whenever a PQ government is in place, we're asking that the tradition, that history, be respected."
The Canadian flag has had a revolving-door existence in the upper chamber, better known as the Red Room.
It was installed by the federalist Robert Bourassa when he returned to power in 1985, removed by successive PQ premiers, and was brought back by Jean Charest when he became premier in 2003. Bourassa did not put the Maple Leaf in the legislative chamber, fearing a backlash from nationalists.
The PQ had the flag removed last month during its swearing-in, but it reappeared afterwards. The new government had not explicitly stated its longer-term intentions, before this week.
The flag decision at the October swearing-in drew criticism outside Quebec but also a fair amount inside the province.
The furore left some perplexed.
Previous changes to the flag policy, in 1994 for instance, had never made any waves or encountered the slightest bit of resistance in Quebec.
But there is a backlash this time — aided perhaps by the fact that the PQ was elected with only a small minority and with a popular vote plurality of less than a percentage point.
Liberals say the current bid to shelve the Canadian flag is disrespectful to Quebecers who voted to remain in Canada in two referendums.
One Liberal MNA, in a letter to the legislature Speaker, called the PQ move "shocking and totally unacceptable." The legislature Speaker — a Liberal — must settle the matter.
"As long as Quebec is part of the Canadian federation it's unacceptable to remove the Canadian flag from the (Red Room)," Laurent Lessard, a Liberal MNA, wrote to the Speaker.
"This gesture would be of an extreme gravity because it would be a sign of denial of our country."
Coalition party member Gerard Deltell says the rest of Quebec is concerned with other matters while the PQ worries about flags.