OTTAWA — NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair wasn't the only person Prime Minister Stephen Harper reached out to in the last week to talk about the Quebec election and possibility of a third referendum that could split the country apart.
The Huffington Post Canada has learned that Harper telephoned provincial premiers from coast to coast and sat down with the two main opposition leaders in Ottawa.
"I think from the prime minister's point of view it was to ensure that everyone understood the seriousness of the election for the country and not to take it lightly," said a senior official in the office of a premier representing one of Canada's larger provinces.
Quebec premier and Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois announced a spring election for April 7 on Wednesday. Polls suggest the sovereigntist party is headed for a majority.
Provincial sources say Harper wanted to ensure that leaders supporting the federalist cause would speak with one voice — and not get lured into any provincial or federal debates with Marois during the campaign which could give her further ammunition.
"Let's not inflame or set anything off with regards to the federalist movement," recounted one senior official in a premier's office on the east coast who requested anonymity. Once the dust settles, the message was there may be an onus on the first ministers to speak to the importance of the federation and nation building, the person added.
Harper is deeply unpopular in Quebec. He only has five MPs in the province and is very aware that if the PQ receives a majority, a third referendum could be around the corner.
Marois is being coy on the issue.
"I'm not going to discuss strategy in public but there is no promise to hold a referendum and there is no promise not to," she said Thursday.
The meetings and phone calls to the premiers were intended to be confidential.
"In the interest of having open dialogue and where they can trust us, we are not going to sit down with them for an hour and then jump out to a media event and spill the beans about what was said. And I think this is a pretty sensitive topic so I think that all the provinces [respected that]," a senior adviser to a third provincial premier said.
"I was kind of surprised to see Mulcair doing that yesterday," the person added, referencing a CBC story about Harper seeking the NDP leader's advice on Quebec, which Conservatives believe the NDP leaked.
"I thought it was kind of surprising that you would take a subject like Quebec and try to use [meetings] that are pretty standard and happen up there as well [in Ottawa] to your own benefit," the source from a Western province said.
Harper spokesperson Jason MacDonald told HuffPost the prime minister regularly speaks to premiers and leaders of the opposition.
"The substance of the conversation is, as always, private," he said.
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FLASHBACK: The 1995 Quebec Referendum
Mulcair's spokesman George Smith would not comment on the leak or the criticism. He told HuffPost the meeting was "a private conversation" and the purpose was to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
The federal NDP may be on the defensive after Mulcair told reporters he planned to stay neutral in the provincial election and would not back any or all of the federalist parties, the Quebec Liberals or the Coalition Avenir Québec.
Conservative ministers such as Maxime Bernier and Christian Paradis both encouraged Quebec voters to support parties that believe in a united Canada. The federal Liberals back their provincial counterparts.
Mulcair told reporters he is worried about another referendum and if Marois launches a new one he'll fight for Canada but, right now, he's staying on the sidelines.
"I have the intention of staying neutral. I will not support any party during this campaign, because I'm waiting for the day when there will be a provincial NDP in Quebec," he said.
Federal Liberals suggested this week that Mulcair is being silent in order to maintain his support with soft nationalists.
"I've always thought there was a certain confusion about the federalist option with a lot of NDP MPs," Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc told reporters Wednesday. "Mr. Mulcair is perhaps unable to bring his caucus to consensus...We are enormously surprised that he is unable to pronounce himself in favour of a federalist option."
Smith said the Liberals were themselves playing "a dangerous game with national unity for their own short-sighted partisan beliefs." They should be applauding the NDP for defeating the Bloc Quebecois during the last election, Mulcair's spokesman said.
Many Bloc voters, and indeed Parti Quebecois supporters, threw their support behind the NDP during the last federal election. Several NDP caucus members were found to have past connections with associations sympathetic to the sovereignty cause.
A former member of the NDP team, for example, MP Philip Toone's ex-assistant Patricia Chartier, is a candidate in this election for Quebec Solidaire, a left-wing party that advocates sovereignty.
When asked if Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had met with Harper, his office sent a note saying the two had met for about an hour last week.
"Mr. Trudeau undertook to keep the content of that discussion confidential and will keep his word to do so," the statement said.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May did not return requests for comment.