Harper 'ran away from Parliament,' Dion says

Leaders of the NDP-Liberal coalition said Saturday they'll continue efforts to topple the minority Conservative government for the good of the economy.

Rallies for and against coalition held across Canada

Supporters of a Liberal-NDP coalition braved sub-zero temperatures in Toronto on Saturday. ((Chris Young/Canadian Press))

Leaders of the NDP-Liberal coalition said Saturday they'll continue efforts to topple the minority Conservative government for the good of the economy.

Speaking at a pro-coalition rally in Toronto on Saturday, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of caring more about his political career than the financial well-being of Canadians.

He also suggested Harper erred in attacking the Bloc Québécois's support of the coalition.

"Harper took an economic crisis, and added the parliamentary crisis, but he then tried to transform it into a national unity crisis — all of this because he cares more about his job than your jobs," Dion said outside Toronto's city hall.

About 3,000 people attended the event, despite the sub-zero temperatures.

"Not the greatest day, but we need Canadians to come out here and show their support," one demonstrator said.

Dion also mocked Harper for suspending Parliament two days ago, before legislators could vote on a no-confidence motion scheduled Monday on the Conservatives' economic update, saying "he ran away from Parliament."

"Harper and [Finance Minister Jim] Flaherty have done nothing for the economy. That is why the Conservatives have lost the confidence of the House of Commons," Dion said.

NDP Leader Jack Layton addressed the same rally, saying the coalition has a "solid plan that will take us through difficult times."

He also said the Harper government would be defeated "at the first opportunity."

In Montreal, Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe addressed fewer than a thousand people gathered by Quebec's three biggest unions.  

Duceppe said he agreed to support the coalition on confidence issues because Harper hasn't put forward any concrete proposals to help Canadians affected by the economic crisis. 

Referring to the prime minister's successful request to have Parliament prorogued, Duceppe said: "He's trying to make Canada a banana republic."

Anti-coalition demonstrators also out in force

But defenders of the coalition cause were not the only people voicing their opinions Saturday. In fact, their events appeared to be dwarfed by a series of anti-coalition protests staged in cities across the country, including Vancouver, Halifax, Fredericton, Calgary and Ottawa.

About 3,000 Conservative supporters converged on Parliament Hill to denounce the political turmoil some said was spurred by the opposition.

Jeff Scott and his 11-year-old daughter Sabrina carried a home-made sign painted in large pink letters that read "Bloc Scum." He said Conservative party officials, who attended the rally en masse, asked him repeatedly to put the placard away.

Police in Calgary estimated about 2,000 people gathered near city hall in support of the minority government, re-elected on Oct. 14. Tory MP Jason Kenney told the crowd he has had more calls about the parliamentary crisis than any other issue.

"I'm really mad about this coalition thing. We voted for Harper and we voted for democracy," one woman attending the rally said.

About 150 people attended an anti-coalition rally in Halifax, waving Canadian flags and holding signs reading "My Vote Counts," "No Secret Deals" and "Respect Our Votes."

Nancy Szkurhan, of Kanata, Ont., holds a sign as she takes part in an anti-coalition rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

A few coalition supporters shouted "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Harper's Gotta Go."

Conservative MP Gerald Keddy, speaking at Sackville Landing near the city's waterfront, said he's pleased the government has suspended Parliament. He said Canadians need this time to assess what's happening.

"It gives all of us a cooling-off period, gives us our 60 days to take a breath, go home, enjoy the holidays, enjoy Christmas, come back in the new year with a throne speech and a proper budget," he said.

People gathered in several cities earlier this week for similar rallies.

Reporting from Ottawa, the CBC's Julie Van Dusen said Canada hasn't seen public debates on this scale since issues like the Quebec referendums, abortion and same-sex marriage dominated the headlines.

"For the first time in a long time, Canadians are riveted to what's going on on Parliament Hill," she said. "I mean, people are engaged in what's going on."

Whether these protests will influence Parliamentary business when it resumes in January, however, remains to be seen.

"Nothing really happens in terms of impact until the House comes back in six weeks," Van Dusen said.

The threat of being toppled by the Liberal-NDP coalition in a no-confidence vote prompted Harper to ask Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean on Thursday to suspend Parliament, to which she agreed. Parliament is not slated to resume until Jan. 26.

The first item on the agenda when the extended break ends will be the presentation of a federal budget on Jan. 27.

The move to prorogue Parliament allows Harper to avoid a no-confidence vote that had been set for Monday. The opposition scheduled the motion in response to a Nov. 27 economic update, which parties criticized for not including an economic stimulus package.

The Liberals and New Democrats signed an agreement last Monday to form the coalition government, with a written pledge of support from the Bloc Québécois.

News websites and social networking sites have been key outlets for Canadians wishing to weigh in on the debate over the coalition agreement.

On Thursday, a public opinion survey suggested that the Conservatives had won the initial public relations battle surrounding the impasse.

An EKOS poll for the CBC, conducted over two days this past week, found that 44 per cent of respondents would support the Conservatives "if an election were held tomorrow." That's up from the 37.6 per cent support the Tories received in the federal election held in mid-October.

With files from the Canadian Press