MONTREAL — Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched his quest for re-election Sunday night inside a Montreal hall by boasting how the values of his Conservative Party mesh with those of Quebecers.
But his speech to a room of cheering supporters stood in contrast to an earlier scene outside, where demonstrators slapped anti-Harper stickers on a Tory campaign bus and one man was arrested for uttering threats.
Shortly before Harper took to the podium, another protester who entered the building was tackled and hauled out while she repeatedly shouted, “Harper — dictator!”
Harper’s choice to kick off his campaign with a big rally in Montreal’s Mount Royal riding suggests he intends to put some energy into Quebec, a province that has proven to be challenging, perplexing terrain for his party.
The Tories have struggled to make a breakthrough in the province, where they dropped to five seats from 11 in 2011.
In Montreal, the Conservatives haven’t won a seat in a quarter-century, but they have long coveted Mount Royal as a possible beachhead in the country’s second-largest city.
The Tories say they believe the Liberal stronghold, which has a large Jewish population, is vulnerable with help from Harper’s strong stance in support of Israel on the world stage.
“Our road starts here in Montreal — at the heart of the great Quebecois nation,” Harper told a crowd of several hundred chanting supporters.
“Friends, for too long Montreal has been absent from the decision-making table in the Canadian Parliament.”
Harper’s choice to open his campaign in Mount Royal, which has been held by Liberals for 75 years, also had significance in the context of this year’s election campaign.
The seat was once held by former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the late father of one of Harper’s main rivals: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Harper attacked the younger Trudeau in his speech and at times called him “Justin,” stripping the Liberal leader of his famous family name. He said Trudeau isn’t up to making tough decisions like standing up to Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
“Maybe he just thinks he can charm ISIS the way he thinks he can just charm Iran,” Harper said of Trudeau, as he also attacked the New Democrats and played to his crowd.
“I hope you notice how the Liberals and NDP are always criticizing us for not being friendly enough with Iran, but for being too friendly with Israel.”
But before the Tory-friendly crowd belted out supportive roars during Harper’s speech, the scene was much different outside the Jewish community centre.
More than 50 protesters gathered on the streets outside the building. Many chanted pro-Palestinian slogans and called Harper a criminal.
At least one demonstrator shouted at people as they entered the building, saying they should be ashamed for supporting Harper. At one point before the speech, a handful of protesters sat on the street in an attempt to block a Conservative campaign bus from leaving its parking spot in front of the building.
Even inside the auditorium, some people who heard Harper speak were skeptical about the Tories’ chances in Quebec.
“I think it’s going to be hard in Quebec, but their chances in Canada are pretty good,” said Oliver Avery, after the event.
Another man who saw the speech said he thought Quebecers will eventually realize Harper has done a good job as prime minister and has lots of experience.
“Hopefully it will be a different story this time around,” said Brian Wolkowicz, a party member.
Quebec could prove to be strategically important for the Tories, who have made no secret about their hopes to add seats in the more-conservative Quebec City region.
“Over the coming weeks, don’t ever let anyone to tell you that Conservative values are not Quebecois values — it is absolutely not true,” Harper told the crowd.
With files from Giuseppe Valiante