QUEBEC — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered an optimistic vision for Quebec but few concrete promises on Friday as he delivered a series of campaign-style speeches in the provincial capital.
With the federal 2019 election only months away, he highlighted the Liberals' infrastructure investments, pursuit of free trade deals, carbon tax, and small-business tax cuts in an address to members of Quebec City's business community.
But Trudeau stopped short of taking any concrete steps to respond to the list of demands Quebec Premier Francois Legault has asked Ottawa to address before the next election.
Legault's shopping list includes compensation for the costs incurred dealing with the influx of thousands of asylum seekers entering Quebec from the United States at unofficial border crossings, more power to select immigrants, a single federal and provincial tax return managed by the province, and a commitment to fund major public transit projects.
But Trudeau on Friday did not appear ready to make any promises.
And while the Legault government is planning to cut immigration by about 20 per cent, Trudeau chose to highlight immigration as a solution to the province's labour shortage, estimated at over 100,000 jobs.
"I'm confident our two governments will be able to identify concrete solutions," he said.
"Recruitment of qualified foreign workers is one, but it won't be enough by itself," and must be coupled by investments in education and training, he added.
And while he said the government was ready to invest in Quebec infrastructure, he declined to provide a firm timeline for a major project to fix Quebec City's bridge, citing the involvement of multiple partners.
The Liberal party won 40 of Quebec's 78 seats on its way to a strong majority in the last election, and the province is crucial to the prime minister's re-election hopes.
Friday evening, Trudeau appeared to be in full campaign mode as he sprang onto a stage to the sound of blaring music to deliver a speech to party members attending a weekend convention.
He promised his partisan audience the party would "stick to its values" during the coming campaign.
"Faced with a world that is folding in on itself, Canada asserts itself, commits itself, imposes itself," he told the cheering crowd.
But while the party's poll numbers in Quebec are strong, Trudeau has faced tough questions in the province lately on thorny issues including immigration, the government's decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline, and NAFTA concessions that are unpopular with the province's dairy farmers.
On Friday, Trudeau also faced criticism over his government's refusal to give a second contract to the Davie shipyard for a supply vessel.
The federal government awarded Quebec-based Davie Shipbuilding a $700-million contract to convert a civilian container ship into a temporary supply vessel and lease it to the navy for at least five years. Davie has offered to convert and lease another ship for $500 million, but the navy says that's unnecessary.
Pierre Drapeau, president of the association of suppliers to the shipyard, told Trudeau that work is urgently needed at Davie. He said less than 3 per cent of the contracts from Ottawa's national shipbuilding strategy have gone to the shipyard in Levis, which is across the river from Quebec City, and workers are losing their jobs.
Trudeau said he is looking at ways to provide more work for the shipyard, but a second supply ship is simply not needed right now.
"We understand there are preoccupations and concerns regarding the Davie workers, and we are trying to look for new contracts and new ways to support them and deliver equipment that Canada needs," he said.
"But the (Defence Department) and the Coast Guard, everyone has been very, very clear that we don't need Obelix and that's why we aren't advancing on the Obelix," he said, referring to the second ship Davie had proposed to the government.
Trudeau blamed the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper for awarding shipbuilding contracts to Vancouver and Halifax while leaving out Quebec's capital.
He said he understands the frustration, but Canada can't be seen as a country that tears up previously signed contracts when a new government is elected.
In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice-Admiral Ron Lloyd said he was "comfortable'' with having only one temporary support ship in the water at this time.
Simon Maltais, who works for the association of suppliers to the shipyard, said he was disappointed by the prime minister's statement.
"It is a necessity for Canada to support its troops in the Atlantic, and now we're being told it's not," he said. "That's a first for us."
Quebec Deputy Premier Genevieve Guilbault, who attended the luncheon, said she was disappointed Trudeau didn't make any promises on issues such as immigration.
"We felt that he was in a positive mood, but we would have appreciated more concrete commitments," she said.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press