Stephen Harper’s temper tantrum serves to alienate more Quebecers

Most often, when you watch Stephen Harper at a news conference or on TV when he's delivering a speech, it is like looking at a sphinx. You can't really read him.

He could be laughing on the inside, or crying, but his face, except for that occasional upturn of the corners of his lips, a sort of smile, is inscrutable.

But you can decipher his political actions, as many analysts, pollsters and columnists do, so regularly they should pay him commissions as a source for their work.

Look at the sand storm he stirred up by naming Angelo Persichilli as his new communications director a couple of weeks ago. Persichilli is a gentleman and personable in personal situations.

He has in the past few years displayed a preference for Harper, in his columns for The Hill-Times, the Toronto Star and the Italian language newspaper, Corriere Canadese.

But he does not speak French, and as inquiring minds found when they went back to one of his columns, he has even complained there were too many francophones in Ottawa, meaning the political world and Parliament Hill.

Persichilli quickly tried to undo damage by pledging "utmost respect" for Québecers, but you can't really undo damage.

Why would Stephen Harper appoint a Toronto journalist who does not speak French as his communications director? Like Harper's new penchant for royalty, that has to be a throwback to the 1950s.

Much ink has been splashed across newspapers and many kilobytes have appeared and disappeared on laptops and smart phones since the appointment, pointing, with Jason Kenney's assistance, to the apparently bottomless well the Conservatives believe is still there for them to draw from in the "ethnic" communities, the new Canadians of Asian and South Asian descent and origin, and diasporas from a host of other regions in and around Toronto and Vancouver.

Persichilli also did a lot of work with Omni, the Toronto-based multicultural cable TV station.

Some people say Persichilli got the job because of the plate shifts taking place under the vast Italian Canadian community, yet another electoral vein. That makes more sense.

But the most significant thing to read from Persichilli's appointment is not where Harper is headed for votes, but where he is headed away from.

And that is most likely Québec.

In the last Parliament, the Conservatives tabled a bill in the Commons that would have created 30 new federal electoral districts, leaping well ahead of the new ridings that are guaranteed to take place in the next two or three years under the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, which would be based on population statistics from this summer's national census.

Under the separate Conservative legislation, which the government promised in the Throne Speech will be reintroduced in this Parliament, Ontario would get 18 seats, B.C. would get seven and Alberta would get five.

An aide to Edmonton Conservative MP Tim Uppal, a South Asian Canadian who rocketed into cabinet after the May election and is in charge of the bill, said Monday she could not comment on the details in the new version, since it has not yet been tabled in Parliament.

It is true, those are the three provinces that are growing the most rapidly, with federal electoral districts literally bursting at the seams, and even newly minted NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp said new ridings are necessary.

But he also said Québec has to be taken into consideration.

He referred to the fact the House of Commons has passed a motion, moved by Harper himself, that recognized the Québec people, the Québécois, as a nation within Canada.

Not the province as a kind of state within Canada, as Topp implied, but the people. And no one really knew what the motion, which is just an expression of the mood of the Commons, meant. All Québecers? Only francophone Québecers?

The Commons could pass another motion anytime, taking it back.

Regardless, that was 2006, and this is now.

Since then, the Québécois have gradually been turned off by Harper, beginning with the infamous blunders of the 2008 election when, trying to appeal to their core base in the gun-toting crowd to get out the vote, and others who, like Harper at the time, hated "extravagant galas," the Conservatives promised to cut wasteful spending on arts and culture and get tough on young offenders.

It's been downhill ever since for the Tories in the province, a steady and slow slide capped with those 59 seats going to the NDP last May. Harper, while appearing characteristically without emotion on the outside, must have been broiling inside.

He is not going to waste time there anymore and, with those 30 new seats in Ontario, Alberta and B.C., why bother?

He not only hired a communications director who does not speak both of Canada's two official languages but, from his actions at the pre-Parliamentary Conservative caucus last week, he has also dropped a hallmark appeal to Québecers.

Only a week earlier, his former communications director, the pit bull Dimitri Soudas, excoriated Hélène Buzzetti, a Le Devoir Parliament Hill journalist, for the temerity of claiming Harper's press office no longer has bilingual press attaches.

Soudas said Andrew MacDougall, now associate communications director, speaks French and English, and mentioned a francophone in the office.

Soudas also pointed out, in a steaming letter to Buzzetti he circulated throughout the Parliamentary Press Gallery, that Harper, no matter where he is, in the entire world, has always for the past few years opened every statement and speech with remarks in French.

But Harper didn't do that at the caucus meeting last week.

His first full sentence to the crowd, aside from a perfunctory merci beaucoup chers amis, when he started, was in English.

"It's good to see all of you," he said. "I know you've all been busy over the summer, as have I."

Which is all well and fine, we're sure he had a nice summer.

But it does seem a shame to risk 144 years of shared history just because of a temper tantrum.

(CP Photo)

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