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Tory senators break ranks over PM's choice of communications chief

Prime Minister Stephen Harper joins Senator Jacques Demers at a Conservative rally in Montreal on Sept. 1, 2010.


The Prime Minister's new communications director has been the target of opposition broadsides since accepting the position last week – now he's taking friendly fire as well.

Conservative senators from Quebec said Thursday they were "shocked" by comments Angelo Persichilli made last year about the province's francophones.

They even raised the prospect of cutting him out of their communication channels altogether.

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Mr. Persichilli's appointment sparked almost immediate controversy in Quebec when it was revealed the former journalist had penned a column for the Toronto Star that addressed the "overrepresentation" of francophones in federal institutions.

The column also refers to Quebec's "annoying lament" about its treatment by the rest of Canada.

That was too much for a pair of high-profile Quebec senators.

"First of all, he should have thought twice before saying something against francophone Quebeckers," said Jacques Demers, a former NHL coach who led the Montreal Canadiens to their last Stanley Cup victory.

"I'm not the one who hired him, but I'm affected by it because Quebec francophones already have enough trouble in terms of defending our language.

"Of course I find it shocking."

Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, a well-known advocate for victims' rights before being named to the Senate, joined Mr. Demers in criticizing Mr. Persichilli.

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"It's always shocking to have comments against Quebec, against Canadians," Mr. Boisvenu said. "It is not acceptable."

The Prime Minister's Office has hired another adviser, former Progressive Conservative MP André Bachand, to deal specifically with Quebec matters.

Mr. Persichilli's predecessor, Dimitri Soudas, had doubled as a Quebec adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

When Mr. Boisvenu was asked whether Mr. Persichilli deserved his position in the PMO, the senator suggested he would simply work around him.

"Ask the Prime Minister that question," Mr. Boisvenu said. "We are waiting for Mr. Bachand's arrival and it is with him that we'll work."

Mr. Bachand, who is currently Canada's UNESCO ambassador, is due to begin his new job in the next several weeks.

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The public acrimony directed at Mr. Persichilli from within the party is unprecedented. Under Mr. Soudas, the Prime Minister's communication team had a reputation for imposing its will on the furthest reaches of the party.

But now even Mr. Harper's Quebec lieutenant will only give tepid support to Mr. Persichilli.

"We have a good prime minister who has at heart the desire to reconquer Quebec," said Industry Minister Christian Paradis, one of five Tory MPs from the province.

"We have a nice appointment in André Bachand. I work for the Prime Minister. I don't work for Mr. Persichilli."

Mr. Paradis noted that Mr. Harper has already distanced himself from Mr. Persichilli's Quebec comments.

Carl Vallee, a francophone spokesman for the prime minister, told media outlets earlier this week the Star column didn't reflect Mr. Harper's views.

Mr. Persichilli's appointment is considered by many to be a nod to Canada's ethnic communities, who have begun to vote Tory in greater numbers.

He was the editor of an Italian-language community newspaper and produced multicultural television programs in Toronto.

The Conservative MP who leads the party's outreach to ethnic communities provided the most robust defence Thursday of Mr. Persichilli's hiring.

"Mr. Persichilli was not hired to be a columnist, or for his personal opinions," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said.

"Mr. Persichilli is well-known in media circles, particularly in Toronto's ethnic communities, as someone knowledgeable, who has a lot of experience and a lot of maturity."

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