02/01/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 04/02/2013 05:12 EDT

Stephen Harper's Meeting With Pauline Marois Beset By Controversy (PHOTOS)


ESTEREL, Que. - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first substantive meeting with the new premier of Quebec was relatively amicable, to hear her tell it Friday.

Pauline Marois said the prime minister promised to consult with the provinces while negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, just as they have been consulted during the ongoing talks with the European Union.

She said he also agreed his government would seek local input while refurbishing the federally run share of Montreal's Champlain Bridge.

And she said he sought to reassure her that his reforms to Employment Insurance would be flexible enough to accommodate regions with many seasonal jobs.

The premier — who had promised to clash swords with Ottawa when she was elected — said the encounter actually went quite well.

"I must say I'm very satisfied with this meeting," Marois told reporters after.

But Marois said she still has doubts about the EI reforms and will assess whether the prime minister's reassurances ring true.

A meeting between the federal and provincial ministers on the file, Diane Finley and Agnes Maltais, has been scheduled for Feb. 11.

"I told him I would be very skeptical," Marois said. "I still have serious doubts and I will continue to be very vigiliant."

It was their first significant discussion about policy since Marois took office.

The pro-independence premier was elected Sept. 4; her party campaigned on a plan to confront Ottawa on a series of issues and use each one to advance the cause of Quebec independence.

As one prominent Pequiste described it at the time, it was a win-win proposition for the separatist party: either the PQ would get things from the feds or, in the case of failure, would use each case as an argument for sovereignty.

The two leaders had met for an introductory chat at a Francophonie summit in Africa late last year. On Friday, Harper was in Quebec attending a funding announcement for a ferry system in the provincial capital.

The federal government will kick in roughly one-third of the estimated $19 million to refurbish the ferry from Levis, Que., across the river from Quebec City.

Harper made the announcement with Marois, whom he met with privately afterward. They held separate news conferences, however, because Marois wouldn't agree on the prime minister's more tightly controlled conditions for holding a media event.

At his news conference, Harper was asked about the damage his EI reforms might do in Quebec, with its large number of seasonal workers in tourism, forestry and fisheries.

He was also asked whether he might transfer some responsibility for EI to the province, as Marois' PQ government is demanding.

Harper didn't have much to say on the matter. He simply replied that the program would continue to operate out of Ottawa.

"Employment Insurance is clearly a federal responsibility under the Canadian Constitution," Harper replied.

"The federal government intends to live up to its responsibilities in that regard."

He also avoided saying too much when asked about Marois' less-than-triumphant trip to Scotland this week.

The PQ premier had earlier hyped her meeting with the Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond as a landmark opportunity to discuss separation strategies. But the Scottish leader didn't take her up on an offer to share old referendum files and didn't appear with her in public.

That trip to Edinburgh has earned Marois ribbing from opponents and commentators back home. Some have also bemoaned her performance in an interview with the BBC, where she struggled with some English turns of phrase.

Harper was asked whether it was appropriate for the premier to have been pitching independence abroad.

He didn't bite. He simply used the opportunity to point to the case as an example of Canada's flexible federal system.

"In our federation, premiers have the right to travel and to promote their agenda and their programs," Harper said.

"It's the nature of our federation, and I won't comment on the trips of other first ministers."

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