Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois is opening a new front in her bid to become Quebec premier, saying if Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn't meet her demands for more provincial powers it proves that Ottawa's recognition of the "Québécois as a nation" is meaningless.
In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Marois said that if she is victorious in next Tuesday's election, she will form a "sovereigntist government" – and will waste no time in confronting the Conservative government in Ottawa.
Liberal Leader Jean Charest, who is running third in most polls, launched a new strategy of his own, recasting the Liberals as the only force that can block the separatist Parti Québécois from taking office.
If elected premier, Ms. Marois said she will immediately request a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Harper to outline her demands and to make it clear that her ultimate objective is to achieve sovereignty.
In the meantime, she said, Ottawa will have to treat Quebec like a nation – not a province – and give it full authority over jurisdictions such as language, culture and the employment insurance program.
"I will go as fast as possible in asking for these powers," Ms. Marois said. "I expect him to listen and consider what I will be proposing and I expect Mr. Harper to think about it in order to begin real discussions, real negotiations with us."
Should Ottawa refuse, it will demonstrate that Quebec can never fulfill its aspirations within Canada.
"We are not yet sovereign, so he has the responsibility of being the Prime Minister of Quebeckers. He voted a motion recognizing Quebec as a nation. It must be backed by concrete measures," Ms. Marois said.
"We won't be satisfied with just getting more powers. What we want is Quebec sovereignty. And until we achieve it following a referendum, what we want is to get more power on what makes us different as a people."
A spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office refused to comment, saying only that Ottawa will not interfere in the election and will respect the choice voters make on Sept. 4. "We will work with the next government of Quebec on our common interests, which are job creation, economic growth and long term prosperity," Harper spokesman Carl Vallée said in an e-mail.
By bringing Mr. Harper into the conversation, Ms. Marois is attempting to lock down crucial francophone votes in order to win a majority. With the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec now running a solid second to the PQ, Ms. Marois has stopped attacking the Liberals and sharpened jabs against CAQ Leader François Legault.
Mr. Charest is attempting to cast doubt on the prevailing narrative of a PQ-CAQ race. He delved into alternative scenarios to his own victory for the first time Thursday, suggesting it is tactically impossible for the CAQ to be elected. He listed the many regions of Quebec where Mr. Legault's team is weak, from the rural eastern and western extremities of the province, to the entire island of Montreal.
"Anyone thinking of voting for the CAQ is going to end up with Pauline Marois. That's what the real politics is here," Mr. Charest said.
With support among francophones at around 20 per cent, Mr. Charest's Liberals are in danger of going down to an unprecedented defeat. Academics and writers in Quebec are evoking the possibility of an implosion similar to the one suffered by the federal Liberal Party in the 2011 election.
In her interview with The Globe, Ms. Marois was particularly hard on the Council of the Federation intitiated by Mr. Charest when he became Premier in 2003, calling it a "social club" that did nothing to further the interests of Quebec.
"We will not practise the empty-chair politics. When there are interprovincial conferences or federal-provincial conferences on different issues, Quebec will be present and will argue the case of a sovereigntist government," she said.
During a stop in the Beauce region, south of Quebec City, Mr. Legault accused Ms. Marois of trying to divide Quebeckers. "[S]he she is only thinking about her personal interests," he said.
Mr. Legault said the CAQ has attracted support from all sides of the constitutional debate. The common thread, he said, is a promise to oppose a third referendum on sovereignty.
"We want to put constitutional issues aside," he said.