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Reopening Constitution not an ‘immediate issue,’ Layton says

Jack Layton says Quebec can't be left out of the Constitution for decades, but re-opening it is not an immediate priority if the New Democrats takes office.

In a morning swing through Montreal, the NDP Leader insisted he'll exhibit a respect for Quebeckers' "hopes and aspirations" – and that the first step toward it, and getting Quebec to sign on to the Constitution, is defeating Stephen Harper.

"The first thing it involves is replacing the Harper government. Because the Harper government arrived with all this great promise, that it was going to recognize the nation of Quebec, and so on and so forth. It turned out all to just be empty words."

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Mr. Layton, now riding an unprecedented wave of support in the polls, is facing more questions about what his approach would be to Quebec. And he's also facing the challenge of trying to convert that wave of support into actual votes in ridings across a province in which his party has long lacked real organization strength on the ground, yet is suddenly competitive.

He assured callers on a Montreal radio show that the NDP wants to expand social program like subsidized daycare, but Quebec would be able to withdraw with full compensation, "to do what it had to do." He reassured another caller that the NDP would respect a vote for Quebec sovereignty in a referendum, but he will work against that happening. He reiterated that he'd apply the "principles" of Quebec's language laws to federally-regulated workers in the province.

The NDP Leader has tried to exhibit an openness to efforts to have Quebec sign the Constitution, but walked a tightrope to try to avoid annoying Constitution-weary voters inside and outside the province. He insists it will come through little, concrete measures and, mainly, a different attitude.

"We have this historic problem that we have a quarter of our population, the people of Quebec, who have never signed on to the Constitution. That can't go on forever," Mr. Layton told reporters in Montreal.

But Mr. Layton said re-opening the Constitution won't be a near-future priority for the NDP, arguing that "winning conditions" for constitutional talks can start to be created by replacing Mr. Harper's Conservative government and taking steps in the Commons that show the Quebeckers their concerns are met.

"That's how we'd get started. You don't get into constitutional discussions until there's some reasonable prospect of success." He said the Constitution "has to be addressed someday," but added "we don't see it as an immediate issue."

Instead, in a morning of TV an radio interviews, Mr. Layton insisted that Quebeckers' immediate concerns are more concrete: jobs, pensions, and making it easier to find a family doctors.

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The NDP Leader, trying to turn promising polls into elected MPs in Quebec, took his appeal to broadcast airwaves – instead of hopping from riding to riding with candidates – as he faced questions about whether his party has the depth to get out the vote.

In many polls, Mr. Layton is now rated ahead of the Bloc Québécois, but the party's candidates in the province – outside a handful of stars – are largely unknown. And the party doesn't have actual campaign offices in most of Quebec's 75 ridings.

Mr. Layton told reporters he didn't know if the NDP had less than 20 riding offices, but insisted the party has put together an organization that makes him optimistic he will be able to get out the NDP vote. "One thing is clear, that volunteers are now arriving to help our candidates in very significant numbers. But we have lots of work to do."

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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