par Ross Marowits, Canadian Press
MIRABEL, Que. (CP) - The Conservative government's offensive to regain the support of Quebecers started Monday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper taking aim at the costly, "big dream" ideas of Pierre Trudeau and the new Liberal leader and ended with him reaching out to Quebec nationalists.
Harper said to a friendly audience of farmers that he "delivered the goods" on his 2004 promise to return 4,450 hectares of rich agricultural land expropriated in 1969 to build Mirabel airport, which now only handles cargo flights.
"In allowing the farmers of Mirabel to re-acquire their land, we are correcting a mistake of history and we are looking towards the future," he said, in one of several overt attacks on the former Liberal prime minister.
The expropriation was done without any consultation or consideration, he told a news conference.
"It was done in what was called the 'national interest,"' Harper said. "It was at the time an omni-present, centralizing government."
Harper later travelled to the Saguenay region northwest of Quebec City Monday night, where he gave a speech highlighting his government's recognition of the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada in a motion passed in Parliament.
"We took a historic step forward," Harper said in French in the speech in Jonquiere. "In adopting this motion, Canadians said yes to the Quebecois and the Quebecois said yes to Canada."
Harper, who reached out to Quebec nationalists in the speech which also extolled his government's record in the past 10 months, took a few shots at Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe who he said changed his position on the motion three times in three days.
He said that while Duceppe consulted sovereigntist leaders, he never consulted the prime minister. Harper said he would have told him to "be true to the history of Quebecers in Canada."
Harper said Quebecois had become a nation not through a constitutional document but through a history of hard work building the country.
"True nationalists are builders," he said.
In recounting Tory accomplishments, such as reducing taxes and debt and helping families, he said his government would continue to make progress and do so while respecting provincial jurisdictions.
The Quebec trip marks a year since a speech he gave paved the way to the Tories winning an unexpected 10 seats in last January's federal election.
A series of decisions ranging from his comments on the war in Lebanon to his environmental proposals have eroded his support among Quebecers.
Recent polls have the Conservatives trailing in third place behind the Bloc Quebecois and the resurging Liberals under Stephane Dion.
But the prime minister said he remains in good political shape overall.
"I'm still doing a lot better in the polls than I was doing a year ago when I won," he told reporters referring to national surveys that put him in a virtual tie with the Liberals.
Harper said he believes he ultimately has the winning issue on his side that counts most to Quebecers: resolving the so-called fiscal imbalance with the provinces. He pledged once again Monday to address the issue in his upcoming budget.
And despite facing a new Liberal leader, Harper said Quebecers face the same choice they did nearly a year ago.
"There's one party that doesn't admit anything is wrong, doesn't admit there is a fiscal imbalance, doesn't want to change anything," he said of the Liberals.
"There's another party that cannot do anything about it (Bloc) and there's a third party, our party, that is tackling these things so I think the choice will be the same next time as it was the last time."
In Quebec City on Monday, Dion was attempting to make inroads of his own in his home province by naming former leadership rival Michael Ignatieff as deputy leader.
For years, Dion has faced a cool reception from Quebecers as the architect of the Clarity Act on Quebec secession.
But in Mirabel, the decision by a former Liberal government to expropriate nearly 40,000 hectares of agricultural land continues to resonate among voters after so many years.
Farmer Benoit Couvrette said farmers are grateful even if the decision was purely - as one critic claimed - to buy votes.
"For us, whether it's political or other things, it's a decision that is very important to us," he said at a meeting in which Harper received several standing ovations.
Harper said a committee will be set up to recommend the terms of sale for about 4,450 hectares - or the equivalent of 3,520 football fields. Sales of the land are expected next summer.
The federal government will keep about 2,400 hectares in reserve for use by the airport. It will still be Canada's largest airport properties. A 200-hectare environmentally sensitive bog will also be retained.
The Liberal government of that time had large, costly projects that raised taxes and left a big debt, Harper said.
"At that time, Ottawa took what it wanted."
Mirabel, which no longer has passenger flights and has cargo flights instead, was built north of Montreal in 1975. About 3,000 families were affected by the expropriation.
However, much of the land was sold back to farmers in 1985 under former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney.
Billed as the airport of the future, Mirabel never met growth projections and closed to passenger flights, which eventually shifted back to smaller Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport, then known as Dorval.
When asked if Mirabel Airport will need land to grow in the next 40 years, Harper replied: "In four decades I'd probably be dead - I'm sure that I will be dead."
Marcel Denis, head of a farmers' committee that work to regain the expropriated land, thanked the Conservatives.
"It is the only government that has delivered the goods," Denis said.
Harper also said aboriginals, who say they have claim to the land, will be consulted and be part of the process.
The Kanesatake Mohawks, who are laying claim to the 4,450 hectares, said in a statement their rights should be respected and want to negotiate the matter.
On the subject of a federal election, Harper said he'd like his minority government to last until 2009.
"I don't detect any desire on the part of the public to have two elections in one year."
Harper in Quebec to shore up support, reaches out to nationalists
La nation québécoise vue du Canada
par Ross Marowits, Canadian Press