MONTREAL - Liberal leadership favourite Justin Trudeau waded Tuesday into two areas of provincial policy, at one point even taking shots at the Parti Quebecois government, while visiting Quebec.
Trudeau offered his opinions on Quebec language legislation and on tuition fees, while also reiterating his promise to increase federal involvement in education.
He delivered speeches and answered student questions at three schools on Tuesday, two of them English institutions and one French.
The crowds were similarly large at every stop — but the level of warmth of the reception varied from one official language to the next.
At the English-language Dawson College students asked him to sign autographs and pose for photos after the event. At the French-language Universite de Montreal later in the day, he was grilled on the Constitution and one student approached him afterward to debate the subject.
His first stop of the day took him to his alma mater, McGill University, where he offered indications that a Trudeau prime ministership would be a marked departure from a Harper era defined by a hands-off approach to provincial issues.
Trudeau said the federal government should play a bigger role in education — as long as it respects provincial jurisdiction.
"We need to be the best-educated country in the world," Trudeau said, describing his goal to increase post-secondary enrolment from 50 to 70 per cent.
"That's a position that Mr. Harper certainly won't take because he doesn't particularly believe in national leadership, and secondly, (NDP Leader Tom) Mulcair certainly wouldn't take it because he's so worried about his nationalistic base in Quebec to feel that talking about education is something that the federal government can do — but it is."
"We have to do it in a way that respects provincial jurisdiction, but we need to understand that education will be the single-most important thing to get right in the coming years."
He also weighed in on two Quebec political issues that have made headlines in recent days.
Trudeau said he thinks the Parti Quebecois' plan to tighten language laws goes too far. At Dawson, he even teased the government over an ongoing internal spat in which party figures are divided over whether Montreal's metro system should offer guaranteed bilingual service.
"I came out in the fall in Quebec City against any strengthening of Quebec's language laws. I don't think it's necessary," he said.
"I don't think it's helpful and, actually, you can see the extent to which the approach that this government has is very much based around electoral concerns and the idea of drumming up controversy rather than anything else."
He continued by saying it makes little sense that, on the one hand, the PQ's Bill 14 would reduce access to English services while, on the other, the party is talking about making the metro more English — much to the dismay of former premier and PQ icon Jacques Parizeau.
"So, what you have is a hodge-podge of reactions that are very much around trying to generate controversy and positioning and electoral interests and appease base rather than actually do what's in the best interests of communities," he said.
"For me, it's an old issue that becomes less and less relevant with every passing day as more and more Quebecers become bilingual, as people no longer see a tremendous conflict between English and French."
Those comments on provincial issues did not actually come up in a speech — they only emerged in response to students' questions.
He did back up the PQ government on one policy in a scrum with reporters.
Trudeau said he doesn't support free university tuition, echoing the provincial government's position.
"I don't think free tuition for university is an efficient use of limited taxpayer dollars," he said, adding it should only be free for poorer students who "desperately" need it.
The idea of free education is at the heart of a dispute between the government and the more hardline student faction.
But when asked by a reporter about Quebec's broader public debate over the cost of tuition fees, Trudeau declined to get involved, saying he respected the province's right to handle issues within its jurisdiction.
Trudeau was also asked by a student at McGill if he thought a referendum vote of 50 per cent plus one would be enough for Quebec to secede from Canada, a question that referenced the New Democrats' position on the matter.
He responded by suggesting that at least two-thirds of Quebecers should have to vote in favour of independence for it to pass.
"If we want to change the Canadian Constitution... we should at least have the same threshold needed to change the New Democrat Party's constitution, which is two-thirds," Trudeau said, before stating he did not want to fix a threshold himself.
His appearance at McGill drew an audience of a bit more than 100 students, with some unable to fit into the room.
He later spoke to a packed auditorium, with about 300 people filling a hall at Dawson.
At least 200 students attended his event at Universite de Montreal.
Students there asked pointed questions about the Constitution, which was patriated by his father in 1982 without the support of Quebec.
Nobody in that room, which was about three-quarters full, asked for an autograph or a photo after his appearance, but one student pulled him aside to continue debating Canada's constitutional situation.
One student said he did not feel Canadian, because of cultural differences. Another asked whether he had any ideas to move beyond the constitutional "status quo."
Trudeau has said reopening the Constitution to get Quebec's approval would not be a pressing priority.