OTTAWA - Quebec is on equal footing with the federal government on the international stage and the province's distinct place in Canada is similar to France within the Europe Union, Premier Jean Charest said in a recent interview.
Charest told Express magazine, a weekly newsmagazine in France during his visit to Paris in July, that asymmetrical federalism in Canada gives Quebec a unique political status in the country apart from the other provinces and that his government is able to express itself ''without inhibition'' on the world stage.
''There is no doubt that we are a people and a nation. And I see no contradiction in the fact that we, Quebecers, are also Canadian, like the French are French, but also European,'' said Charest, pointing out that Quebec federalists are just as aggressive as separatists when it comes to defending Quebec's identity.
''On the international level, we are not subordinate to the federal state. We conduct our business without inhibition and we do not see many limits to our actions.''
Charest said the Canadian government cannot speak for Quebec in such areas as health, education, culture and language, adding quickly that the two governments complement each other.
He said asymmetrical federalism, as recognized in the 2004 health federal-provincial agreement and the recent federal agreement on the role of Quebec at UNESCO, gives the province a distinct place in Canada: ''It's the acceptance of our difference, the unique political personality of Quebec, and the confirmation that our political status is not the same as that of the other provinces.''
Charest also tried to explain why Prime Minister Stephen Harper has avoided recognizing Quebec as a ''nation'' when questioned about it: ''It doesn't matter what expression is used. We arrive, one way or the other, at the same conclusion, which is that we are a nation.'' (The cover of the Express magazine ran Charest's quote ''Of course Quebec is a nation'' on its cover.) Charest also referred to Sir John A. Macdonald's affirmation that Canada would have never been created a country without the recognition of Quebec as a nation in the Constitutional Act of 1867.
Charest also seemed to open the door to future constitutional talks by referring to Senate reform in his interview. He said he finds the Bundersrat, the German upper house, an interesting model for the current debate in Canada, along with the one in Belgium. (Harper referred to the Belgium federalism model during a speech in November, 2004.)
Reached in New Brunswick where he was celebrating Acadian festivities, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoit Pelletier said Tuesday that even though Quebec journalists who follow Charest were ''surprised'' by the interview, the premier had not said anything different from what he has said in the past.
''There's nothing new here. I've heard him saying these things on other occasions. But the fact that he is abroad, in France, it puts more emphasis on what he says. But it's part of our philosophy that Quebec should affirm itself within Canada and on the international scene,'' said Pelletier. He said the Quebec government's recognition of Canada as the sovereign state has not changed but that it is natural for Quebec, as a ''federated state'' within the Canadian federation, to pursue a greater role on the international stage.
''We are a nation but don't take it in the meaning of a country ... (Charest) wanted to emphasize that a nation like Quebec could in fact develop itself and express itself within a more global, political and juridical structure as is the case for France and Europe,'' said Pelletier, a former University of Ottawa law professor.
He denied Charest's recent nationalistic comments in France are part of the Liberal government's preparations for the next provincial election. Charest's popularity has suffered in the province because of the persistent view that he is a staunch federalist sent by Ottawa to Quebec City to fight separatists.
Newspaper columnist Norman Spector pointed out this week in his blog that the English media had failed to report Charest's provocative interview with Express. Charest did receive lots of Canadian media attention in mid-July when he told France's TV5 television network that Quebec has the means to go it alone without Canada, but that it would be a mistake to do so.
Spector, who was a major player in the Meech Lake Accord, said there is nothing new about Charest's statements on asymmetrical federalism in Canada. ''But I've never heard Jean Charest draw the analogy between Quebec and members of the European Union, which are sovereign nations,'' added Spector.
A phone request to the Prime Minister's Office for reaction to the Charest interview was left unanswered.