Canadian political party leaders wrangled for francophone votes in a televised French-language election debate on Wednesday in which Quebec separatist leader Gilles Duceppe renewed calls for Quebec independence.
“The best solution for Quebec is to become an independent nation,” said Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois separatist party, proposing the EU model of “economic and political association” as a template for future relations between Canada and the province.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to keep the focus on the economy in melees with opposition leaders, but later told reporters a re-elected Conservative government would not revisit constitutional reforms requested by Quebec to park its drive for independence.
Quebecers twice voted in referendums on splitting from the rest of Canada in 1980 and 1995. Federalists only narrowly won the last ballot.
A federalist party led by Quebec Premier Jean Charest currently holds a majority in the provincial legislature, but separatists are hoping to regain power in a ballot expected at the latest in 2013 as support for Charest dwindles.
In the meantime, the Bloc is looking in the May 2 Canadian election to hold onto the 47 seats it had in parliament prior to its dissolution and use them as a pulpit to promote Quebec independence.
Harper, who defended his government’s record against an onslaught in a previous English-language debate on Wednesday, appeared less at ease in the latest round.
His main rival, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, however, picked up his game, seeming more at ease promoting his party platform of increased social spending to voters in French.
A federalist anglophone born in Toronto, Ignatieff reminded voters that his parents and grandparents are buried in Quebec and wished that Quebecois are never forced to choose between Canada and Quebec.
In a back and forth over the French language itself, he said Canadian federalism has “bolstered the francophone community in North America and is a reason why it is prosperous and strong.”
Duceppe shot back that it was the Liberals that repatriated Canada’s Constitution from Britain in 1982 against the objections of Quebec, which has still not ratified the charter.
Duceppe also blasted Conservative plans to create a centralized securities regulator expected to be based in Toronto (the provinces currently have jurisdiction), while arguing for increased funding for Quebec from federal coffers.
“That’s garbage,” replied Harper, underscoring a seat obtained by his Tory government for Quebec at UNESCO.
In fact, a Quebec representative is part of the Canadian delegation at the UN cultural agency.
Harper also touted Canada’s bilingualism, saying: “This country was founded by French speakers who envisioned a nation spanning the continent. It’s our heritage and it belongs not only to Quebecers, but to Acadians [on the Atlantic coast] and French-Canadians across the country.”