MONTREAL — The new Parti Quebecois government is sounding a more conciliatory tone toward the Harper Tories and now wants to work with the federal government, not against it, to create a more decentralized Canada.
Now that the PQ has only a minority government it is scaling down the forceful message from the recent provincial election, when it announced plans to pick fights with the federal government.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier told The Canadian Press that the PQ’s objectives are now modest enough that he even expects to find common ground with the Harper government in some areas.
“We will definitely act in good faith with a lot of pragmatism,” Cloutier said in an interview Wednesday, referring to how the PQ plans to engage with the Conservatives.
“I’m sure they are aware that Quebecers have elected a sovereigntist government and we will make sure we respect our program.
“But at the same time, we will act with a reasonable approach and make sure that we can find agreements.”
The message stands in contrast to the PQ’s recent election platform which announced attempts to take over powers as diverse as foreign aid and income-tax collection. Members of the party boldly declared that, if Ottawa refused any request, it would bolster their case for sovereignty.
Since the election the federal government has shown little willingness to engage in any conversation about a rebalancing of federal-provincial powers.
The PQ is now touting its more modest fallback position.
Cloutier said it will seek control over Quebec’s financial share of federal programs that should, under the Constitution, fall under provincial jurisdiction anyway — such as infrastructure, culture and health care.
“In each domain that falls under Quebec’s authority, we will reclaim the part that belongs to Quebec,” said Cloutier, a constitutional lawyer who also holds a master’s degree in public international law, from the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
“And if we accumulate them, it will effectively be billions of dollars.”
He believes that approach is perfectly compatible with the oft-stated message from the Conservatives that they want to put an end to paternalistic federalism.
In the early days of the Harper government, there was even a promise to formally limit federal spending power in areas that fall under provincial responsibility — although nothing ever came of that promise.
Cloutier said the Tories will have many chances over the coming months to prove that they meant what they said.
His comments come as Pauline Marois prepares to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper face to face this week for the first time since she was elected premier last month. The leaders will both be travelling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the Francophonie Summit.
The PQ and the Tories have already indicated that they expect a cordial meeting between Marois and Harper.
For now, Cloutier said he expects the constitutional battles with Ottawa to remain on ice because of the PQ government’s limited minority mandate.
Marois has already said she will seek a consensus among Quebec parties before taking on Ottawa. That could work, for instance, in an area like protecting the federal long-gun registry where all Quebec parties are in agreement and all oppose the Harper Tories.
But it wouldn’t work in others. The PQ, for example, has expressed its desire to take control over Quebec’s portion of the federal Employment Insurance program, but Cloutier said the party would need to first pass a resolution through the national assembly.
The 35-year-old Cloutier holds a unique role in the PQ cabinet: he is the minister responsible for “sovereigntist government,” meaning his job is to make Quebec more independent and to loosen ties to Canada.
Cloutier, who worked as a clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada and lectured at the University of Ottawa, knows the rest of Canada far better than most Pequistes.
“I have a lot of respect for Canadians,” he said.
“We have our own project to make Quebec a country, but it’s not at all against Canadians or against their institutions.”