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The Parti Québécois has a plan to build momentum for Quebec sovereignty, hoping it will help distance it from the governing Liberals who, despite the troubles faced by Premier Jean Charest, remained in a virtual tie with the PQ in recent public opinion polls.

Sovereigntists are counting on the 20th anniversary of the demise of the Meech Lake constitutional accord later this year to spark renewed interest in their cause. The PQ and the Bloc Québécois plan to use the anniversary to prove that despite promises that one day federalism would be reformed, the stalemate continues.

Most Quebeckers don't remember the original five demands in the Meech Lake accord and what they would have given Quebec within the federal system, but it's the PQ's plan to not only to remind them, but also to seek similar constitutional reforms from the federal government.

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"Today the demands listed in the accord isn't part of the priorities of the federalists, certainly not of the current Quebec Liberal government," said the PQ critic of intergovernmental affairs, Alexandre Cloutier.

"Instead of reducing federal interventions in areas of provincial jurisdiction, they have increased," he said. "Federalists in Quebec are powerless to stop Ottawa. They aren't making any demands while constantly repeating it is because the 'fruit is not yet ripe.' Well it's up to us to show that federalists have nothing to propose."

Some supporters of the Meech Lake deal say that under the original accord, the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society in the constitution could have allowed Quebec to redefine its status within Canada. The accord would also have recognized the province's veto over constitutional changes. It would have also limited the federal spending power and given Quebec increased powers over immigration as well as the right to appoint judges to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The deal was officially rejected in June 1990, spurring a constitutional debate that eventually created the crisis atmosphere that propelled Quebec toward a sovereignty referendum.

And while the PQ was among the staunchest opponents of the Meech Lake accord, it plans to seek similar powers within the constitution before making a case for outright political independence. The party contends that once elected, it will demand full jurisdiction over language policy, culture and the environment and if they are rejected by the federal government, it will make it easier to get support for outright independence, Mr. Cloutier said.

"Each power we get brings us a step closer to sovereignty. And if Ottawa refuses, then they will have explain why," Mr. Cloutier said. "And after we judge that we have all the energy needed to lead a battle for outright sovereignty we will do it. One does not exclude the other. Nothing stops us from holding a referendum on sovereignty within a first mandate. Then again nothing stops us from making (constitutional) demands first."

The PQ's expectation is that each rejection of their demands by Ottawa would bring them closer to convincing Quebeckers of the need for sovereignty.

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"Let me be clear, we want nothing less than full sovereignty," Mr. Cloutier said. "But nothing is being excluded. The main difference with before is that we are now prepared to do both, which is to seek certain specific powers from Ottawa while keeping our sights on eventually holding a referendum on sovereignty."

Surveys by CROP and Léger Marketing polling firms show that over the past few months both parties holding a slight lead over the other, placing them in a virtual tie. Mr. Charest has been under fire for refusing to hold a public inquiry into allegations of corruption and price-rigging in the rewarding of public construction contracts.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More


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