QUEBEC - The newly installed Parti Quebecois government wasted no time showing its sovereigntist stripes by appointing, on its first day in office, a minister responsible for advancing the cause of Quebec independence.
A unique new portfolio of minister for "sovereigntist government" was among the cabinet titles handed out as Premier Pauline Marois took office and introduced her ministry Wednesday.
The man with that title has a doctorate in constitutional law and knows the rest of Canada far better than most Pequistes: 35-year-old Alexandre Cloutier worked as a clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada and lectured at the University of Ottawa, in addition to studying at Cambridge University in the U.K.
Cloutier's mission: loosen Quebec's ties to Canada.
The party has promised to introduce policies that could butt up against Canadian constitutional law, confront the federal government for a transfer of powers, and use each case as evidence of how Quebec would be better off on its own.
"It is becoming apparent to us that remaining a province of Canada has become an unacceptable risk for Quebec," Marois said as she introduced her cabinet, with the Canadian flag once again gone from the Red Room in the provincial legislature as it is whenever the PQ holds office.
"It is imperative to advance with force our interests, to promote our identity — not as a province but as a nation."
She said Quebec is no better, or worse, than other provinces — it's just different.
And she will argue that on a variety of issues, from economics to culture, the interests of Canada and Quebec are irreconcilable. She said Wednesday that her government intends to "protect each parcel of sovereignty" that Quebec already enjoys and will seek to acquire more.
In his first news scrum as a minister, Cloutier was tight-lipped about his plans. He said he would have more to say over the coming days about his portfolio, which includes intergovernmental affairs.
Asked what tone he would adopt when dealing with the federal government he replied: "The tone? The tone will depend on the issue, and on the answers we get."
It's unclear how much the PQ can achieve with only a minority government. Cloutier conceded as much, saying he would seek federal-provincial files where the PQ could work with opposition parties.
He didn't cite any examples but the gun registry, the environment, natural-resources policy, crime and transfer payments are areas where Quebec political parties share similar views and might have stark differences with the Harper Conservatives.
Cloutier won't be the only minister working on independence-related files.
Two of the hottest, most politically sensitive, portfolios will go to Bernard Drainville, the former Quebec City bureau chief of Radio-Canada, the French-language CBC.
He will be responsible for introducing an idea that he personally spearheaded, of allowing referendums by popular initiative. It's unclear how much teeth the plan will have, given that the PQ appeared to water it down slightly during the campaign.
Drainville will also lead a ministerial committee on so-called identity issues. The party promises to create a Charter of Secularism that would set limits on religious headwear being worn by public servants, and introduce a "Quebec citizenship" that people would have to get to run for public office.
He will be joined in cabinet by an old colleague — a man who followed him into Radio-Canada's Quebec City bureau as a political analyst.
Pierre Duchesne covered the emotionally charged tuition debate several months ago when he was still a TV journalist. He is now the PQ cabinet minister tasked with scrapping the tuition hikes and holding a summit on education funding.
Marois became the 30th Quebec premier and the first woman to hold the job. She is now the fifth female premier of a Canadian province or territory.
The daughter of a garage mechanic and a teacher, Marois has held a number of powerful political roles in a 30-year career that has seen her run most of the largest provincial departments.
There were numerous bumps on the road to high office, including a leadership mutiny. Then, when her election win finally arrived, it was marred by tragedy. Marois had to be whisked off the stage during her victory speech when a gunman approached the assembly hall and shot two people, killing a stage technician.
The accused shooter emerged again on Wednesday to cast a shadow over a happy moment for Marois. Richard Henry Bain, the suspect, called radio stations from his detention centre to share his theories about how Montreal should become its own province.
Marois was held to a minority in the Sept. 4 vote; her margin of victory was less than one percentage point in the popular vote and four seats in the legislature.
That minority status makes it all but impossible for her PQ government to hold an independence referendum.
However, with a plurality of seats in the legislature, control of ministries, and with her main Liberal opponent in the throes of a leadership race, Marois could seek to advance other parts of her agenda.
She has already called tougher language laws a central priority, while adding that she will seek consensus with opposition parties where possible.
Her appointments sent a mixed message on language.
Marois' best-known and most aggressive spokesman on language policy was placed in a role that, on the surface, gives him only peripheral involvement in the file.
Jean-Francois Lisee, another former journalist who advised past PQ premiers, will be responsible for international affairs. But he will also be minister responsible for Montreal — the scene of the vast majority of language disputes in the province.
Marois also tasked Lisee, who has been extremely vocal about the need for more stringent language laws, with the role of building bridges with Quebec Anglos.
The environment portfolio went to Daniel Breton, who once helped spearhead Quebec's Green party. A more junior environmental role will go to Scott McKay, who led that Green party.
The people appointed to economic roles are less well-known.
In the runup to the swearing-in, some pundits had observed that at a time of global uncertainty the economy might become the PQ's Achilles heel.
Nicolas Marceau, an economist and university professor, is Quebec's new finance minister.
Marceau, 48, a professor at Universite du Quebec a Montreal since 1996, was first elected to the legislature in 2009. He has a PhD from Queen's University in Kingston and has served as an academic for most of his professional career. He previously held the role of finance critic.
A former colleague, fellow economist and university professor, Stephen Gordon, praised Marceau and suggested he should not be underestimated.
"Quebec now has the government with the best economic mind at Finance," Gordon tweeted. "Nicolas Marceau is very sharp."
He will be tested — quickly and often.
The Harper Tories appear willing to poke holes in the PQ's economic credibility. The federal government has, like a mantra in recent days, repeated that Quebecers and other Canadians don't feel like talking about constitutional issues and would rather focus on the economy.
One federal minister, Quebec lieutenant Christian Paradis, even held a news conference last week where he accused the PQ of hurting the economy by abandoning the controversial asbestos industry.
The federal government has repeatedly pointed to the narrow vote result as evidence that Quebecers don't want to squabble about constitutional issues and would rather focus on the economy.
Paradis appears poised to battle the PQ again if the new government makes good on its promise to push for a transfer of control over Quebec's share of the Employment Insurance program. The program used to be run by individual provinces, decades ago.
But Paradis said this week that EI is a federal responsibility and will remain that way.
-With files by Alexander Panetta in Montreal
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