Leaders court Quebec after debate

Canada’s political and economic tilt to the west wasn’t much in evidence on the federal election trail Thursday as all four of the major party leaders pitched their campaign messages to Quebec voters.

OTTAWA — Canada’s political and economic tilt to the west wasn’t much in evidence on the federal election trail Thursday as all four of the major party leaders pitched their campaign messages to Quebec voters.

Just hours after the conclusion of the French-language debate in Ottawa, leaders dashed across the Ottawa River in the crucial 18-day sprint to the May 2 vote.

The two evenings of live debate in the capital this week could signal the start of serious public engagement in an campaign that, to date, appears not to have galvanized the electorate.

But if there is no sweeping political tide in the country, the parties appear determined to fight the battle riding by individual riding.

Next to Ontario, Quebec and its 75 federal seats are a prize worth plundering.

The party messages reflect their different approaches.

Vote Conservative and you might get a federal government job, Prime Minister Stephen Harper — the former Calgary-based Reform party founder — indicated Thursday in Beaupre, Que.

Vote Liberal and you’ll get a new bridge in Montreal and funding for a multipurpose arena (and potential NHL home) in Quebec City, Michael Ignatieff has vowed.

Vote NDP and you might — maybe, possibly, eventually — just get a new constitutional arrangement, said NDP Leader Jack Layton.

Vote Bloc Quebecois and you can feel really good about the sovereign Quebec nation “in your soul,” said Gilles Duceppe — although, just to seal the deal, Duceppe first made the case that Quebec can deny Harper his coveted majority by voting Bloc.

“Canada should thank us for keeping him to a minority,” Duceppe told a rally in Gatineau, Que., a stone’s throw from the Canadian capital across the river.

“We’ve been good neighbours. Fortunately, Quebec was there to say ’no’ to Harper.”

The prime minister is equally keen to have Quebeckers say yes.

At the very least, Harper needs to maintain his party’s existing Quebec foothold if Conservatives are to gain the 12 additional seats needed for a majority in the 308-seat House of Commons.

The Tories held 11 seats in Quebec when their minority government fell March 25, and five of those MPs were members of the Harper cabinet.

“They’ve delivered for this part of the country, they’ve delivered for their ridings,” Harper said in Beaupre, Que., north of Quebec City, flanked by a dozen clapping candidates.

He reiterated a Conservative platform promise to move the head office of the Economic Development Agency of Canada out of Montreal and into some unspecified region of Quebec. The agency has about 365 employees and 14 regional offices.

Ignatieff was also in Gatineau, repeating his platform pledge to make a green energy retrofit program permanent.

He also slammed the Conservatives for treating Canada’s cultural communities like “Disneyland.”

The barb came as a result of a Toronto campaign pitch to assemble people in “ethnic costume” for a Harper rally and photo-op Thursday evening in the suburb of Etobicoke. Self-described “community groups” were mobilizing a protest rally at the venue site late Thursday.

Layton, meanwhile, speaking in Montreal, said it is “abnormal and unacceptable” that Quebec has never signed the 1982 Constitution.

But notwithstanding a broken hip that has him hobbling with a cane, the NDP leader danced like a jitterbug when asked to flesh out his debate promise to re-open the Constitution.

“We’re preparing conditions for us to have the type of discussion that might do something extraordinary and something that should be achieved,” Layton offered.

Ignatieff said during the French debate that he’s seen no interest whatsoever among Quebecers for another constitutional wrangle, prompting a sharp exchange with Duceppe and Layton.

Harper, whose position appears to match Ignatieff’s — or vice versa, right down to the “Quebecois nation” within Canada — nonetheless used the constitutional scars to brand all three of his opposition opponents.

“What I know and what Canadians watching that debate last night saw . . . a very unpleasant trip, let’s put it that way — like a nightmare return to the days of endless constitutional debates,” Harper said in Beaupre.

Not everyone was thrilled with this week’s heavy emphasis on Quebec.

Francophones in different parts of Canada expressed frustration that the French-language debate focused almost exclusively on that one province while virtually ignoring anyone outside.

The debate emphasized local issues, like Montreal’s Champlain Bridge and the pension fund at Abitibi Bowater, and it also featured spirited exchanges on the constitutional status of Quebec.

But it essentially ignored issues specific to francophones anywhere else in the country, and none of the six audience questions came from anywhere outside Quebec.

The Federation des communautes francophones et acadiennes issued a press release Thursday titled, “A leaders’ debate for Quebec and for Quebecers.”

“We have a right to a national debate where leaders speak to us,” the group said.

Above the riding-to-riding hand combat in Quebec, there were other signs Thursday of an increasingly vicious national air war.

With just 18 days until voting day, both the Liberals and Conservatives have rolled out new attack ads.

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