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 with a French magazine.
Mr. Charest told Express, a weekly newsmagazine in France, that asymmetrical federalism in Canada gives Quebec a unique political status 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 Mr. 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," Mr. Charest said during his visit to Paris in July.
The Quebec Premier 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 federal-provincial health 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."
He 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 Express ran Mr. Charest's quote "Of course Quebec is a nation" on its cover.) Mr. 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.
Mr. Charest, who is expected to face a tough election against the separatist Parti Quebecois next year, also seemed to open the door to future constitutional talks by referring to Senate reform in his interview. He said he finds the Bundesrat, the German upper house, an interesting model for the current debate in Canada, along with the one in Belgium. (Harper referred to the Belgian federalism model during a speech in November, 2004.)
Reached in New Brunswick where he was celebrating Acadian festivities, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoit Pelletier said yesterday that even though Quebec journalists who follow Mr. 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."
Mr. Pelletier 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 ... [Mr. 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 Mr. Pelletier, a former University of Ottawa law professor.
He denied the comments are part of the Liberal government's preparations for the anticipated election. Mr. 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.