A Parti Québécois government would fight Newfoundland and Labrador's claim over the Old Harry oil deposit in the Gulf of St-Lawrence, party leader Pauline Marois said, adding that she would challenge a recent agreement between the two provinces and Ottawa.
Ms. Marois said the residents of these remote communities located on what is also called the Magdalen Islands are worried of possible oil spills and destruction of their fishery resources and tourism industry, an important source of livelihood for the area.
"Our position is clear. Before proceeding with the exploration of Old Harry we need to hold a debate with the involvement of the communities," Ms. Marois said. "People have told me today that if we proceed with the exploration money should be set aside to deal with the risks so that people can be compensated."
Ms. Marois made the comments after a meeting with representatives of the islands' fisheries and tourism sector. Under a PQ government Old Harry would become a prime target for a confrontation with the federal government that could entail a bitter battle with Newfoundland and Labrador as well.
Last year Ottawa proposed to a special panel on oil exploration in the Gulf of St-Lawrence that would examine the issues of boundaries between Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador as well environmental concerns. The panel was struck following backlash to oil exploration in the region as a result of the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico resulting in one of the worst environmental disasters on record.
Quebec has imposed a moratorium on oil and gas exploration and development on its portion of the Old Harry prospect until the end of 2012. It is awaiting the conclusion of environmental studies on oil exploration in the region. Newfoundland and Labrador have allowed exploratory work to be conducted on its part of the underwater oil patch. However the longstanding boundary dispute between the two provinces and the billions of dollars in potential revenues remained unresolved.
"I agree that we must challenge Newfoundland. At the same time we shouldn't rush things. We must do things orderly. But I can say we will challenge Newfoundland," Ms. Marois said.
Quebec and Newfoundland have accepted to negotiate and try to resolve the boundary dispute. If they fail the federal government, under a recent agreement would appoint an arbitrator to settle the matter. "We have problems with this agreement negotiated by the Liberals. We have possibilities to challenge it. The doors aren't closed," she said.
The Harper government struck a deal with Premier Jean Charest just before calling an election in 2011 that allows Quebec to keep revenues from any oil production on its side of the border while referring the boundary dispute to arbitration.
Old Harry was not the only issue raised by Ms. Marois in her battle with Ottawa, She said the residents of the islands are concerned over proposed changes to the federal employment insurance program that would penalize seasonal workers if they fail to accept employment outside their regions. Ms. Marois said it would be impossible for the isolated communities here to meet the new requirements without being penalized,"These communities live off seasonal work whether it is the fishing industry or tourism. We will fight for changes to the employment insurance program," she argued. In fact according to Ms. Marois employment insurance is a program that should be totally managed by Quebec rather than Ottawa. A PQ government, she added, would lead the fight to take control of the program. She said employment insurance should be designed to meet the needs of communities.
In a speech to party supporters, former PQ minister Maxime Arsenault emphasised the need for communities on the Islands to stand up and fight Ottawa while backing Ms. Marois's demands for control over the program.
The once popular minister, who resigned from politics in 2008, urged voters to return to the PQ fold in the September 4 vote. "We have to work now to defeat our opponents and not wait until the end of the campaign," Mr. Arsenault said.
The confrontation with Ottawa over employment insurance standards and the uncertainty over the Old Harry oil prospect has given the PQ hope of winning what it had expected to win the last time.
"I am working for the interest of Quebeckers. Right now Quebeckers aren't being well served by Ottawa. The employment insurance program is a firm example of this….I don't have confidence in Ottawa for much," Ms. Marois said.