Leaders woo Quebecers

Both Harper and Dion were in Quebec this week to improve their parties' fortunes here

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Both Stephen Harper and Stephane Dion paid holiday visits to the family in Quebec this week. Harper, in his role as the son-in-law, left gifts under the tree. Dion, while far from being a favourite son, is, nevertheless, making a bid to take over the family business.

The impressions they have made on Quebecers, favourable and otherwise, will be discussed around the family table over the next two weeks.

And make no mistake, these family councils are important. They begin with the question, what do you think of him? When the answer is, "maybe he's not so bad," or even, "not as bad as I thought," that's called opinion reinforcement.

In Harper's case, his rise in the esteem of Quebecers began over the holidays last year, following his open-federalism speech of a year ago yesterday. His campaign platform, on daycare and the GST cut, had given Quebecers something to consider. The Quebec City speech gave Quebecers, weary of polarization between Liberals and the Bloc, a respectable place to go.

In Dion's case, his bump in the polls has confounded the Quebec political class, who dismissed his candidacy as that of a hardline federalist who would only drive more Quebecers into the arms of the Bloc and the Conservatives.

That might be, but in this province, blood runs thicker than water. Dion has used the leadership campaign to rebrand himself successfully from being the author or the hardline Clarity Act to the champion of Kyoto. It will be left to the Conservatives to point out the Liberals' abysmal record on climate change, and his own as environment minister.

Harper's problems with the family in Quebec began during the summer, with his unqualified support of Israel in its war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. A majority of Quebecers also oppose Canada's offensive role against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. These issues, plus Kyoto, and the perception that Harper is a Bush clone with what Dion calls a hard right-wing agenda, have pulled Harper's Quebec poll numbers down from the mid-20s to the mid-teens.

Harper very much needs to recover all that lost ground just to hold on to the 10 seats he has got in Quebec, before he can become more competitive in the crucial battleground of 50 seats outside Montreal.

He arrived on Monday, bearing gifts as prime minister.

At Mirabel, he offered closure to farm families who have for two generations carried a grievance against the Liberals for having expropriated their land for an airport that proved to be one of the great white elephants of the 20th century. Mirabel airport, and the massive land grab around it, were designed for the sonic boom of the supersonic transport, a plane that never caught on. The only SST ever built, the British-French Concorde, never flew out of Mirabel.

In 1985, the Mulroney government sold most of the land back to the farm families. And in an ultimate irony, Dorval airport, which Pierre Trudeau tried to close, was later renamed for him by Jean Chretien. Hardly anyone bothered to point out Dorval had been built for the bomber Ferry Command in the Second World War, a conflict in which Trudeau declined to serve.

Harper called Mirabel "a mistake of history" from a time when "Ottawa took what it wanted." He reminded Quebecers he was keeping a campaign promise, one the local mayor loudly preferred to be broken so the land could become part of an industrial park around the derelict airport. But the families gave Harper a standing ovation, and the bell in the local parish church pealed in celebration.

Then Harper flew into Jonquiere in the kingdom of the Saguenay, and reminded them the House had adopted his motion recognizing Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada, "a nation that gave birth to Canada," he said. He noted Quebec's new place within the Canadian delegation at UNESCO, and dropped broad hints of a deal in the making on the fiscal imbalance. While he was in the neighbourhood, he announced Ottawa's approval of Hydro-Quebec's plan to develop the Rupert and Eastmain rivers. Merry Christmas.

For his part, Dion was in Quebec City, promising to return with his entire caucus in January, and announcing the appointment of Michael Ignatieff as his deputy leader. Where Paul Martin had driven his leadership rivals from office, and dumped Dion from the cabinet, the new Liberal leader has made a smart unity bid by giving them all a role. Ignatieff as deputy leader. Bob Rae in charge of the platform. Gerard Kennedy and Martha Hall Finlay touring the country to help rebuild the Liberal Party. While he was at it, Dion said he wanted no part of any attempt by Gilles Duceppe to bring down the minority government over the Afghanistan mission. "Pointless," he said, pithily.

Also very smart, avoiding tension within his caucus on an issue on which Liberals are painfully divided.

Both Harper and Dion have made a good impression on the family this week. But in the end, only one of them can run the family business.

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