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Separation 'your decision,' Gilles Duceppe tells Newfoundlanders

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe speaks in his Ottawa office on March 25, 2010.

Blair Gable/blair gable The Globe and Mail

Newfoundland and Labrador has a strong nationalist history and would have to decide whether to follow a sovereign Quebec out of Canada, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe says.

Mr. Duceppe was talking separation Wednesday in St. John's, where opposition to the Meech Lake accord - which would have recognized Quebec as a distinct society - helped kill the deal 20 years ago. It's part of his cross-country tour gathering input on sovereignty as the issue simmers on the political back burner.

Mr. Duceppe visited Memorial University where a student asked if he thought Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and other provinces would secede if Quebec left the country. "Newfoundland was once a nation, even [had]a national anthem, so it's different from Alberta," Mr. Duceppe said, casting doubt on Western separation.

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"But it's your decision. I don't want to talk about what you have to decide," he said to laughter from a packed lecture hall.

Newfoundland was once a dominion that functioned much like its own country until 1934, when a British-appointed commission oversaw it. It became part of Canada on March 31, 1949, after just 52 per cent of voters in a referendum supported joining the country.

Talk of separation is a some-time political sport in the province. Debate flared three years ago when the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Danny Williams used a sovereigntist rallying cry in its Throne Speech.

"Our province will achieve self-reliance by becoming masters of our own house," Mr. Williams declared. The French translation - " maitres chez nous" - was former Quebec premier Jean Lesage's clarion call in the 1960s, and became a theme of the Quiet Revolution.

Mr. Williams clarified at the time that he has no taste for separation. He was ensnared in a nasty dispute with Ottawa over offshore oil royalties and equalization payments, and said the phrase was used to connote economic self-sufficiency.

Still, the Premier warned at the time: "We're not going to be slapped repeatedly in the face by federal governments."

After speaking to students, Mr. Duceppe told reporters Quebec could work well with Newfoundland if his province separated. "We have more proximity with Newfoundland and Labrador, especially Labrador, than we do have with B.C.," he said.

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"We have trade, we have some business disputes at certain times - that's part of life also - but I think that we could work as a sovereign state, and Labrador and Newfoundland the way they want."

The Bloc Leader said the Williams government has every right to sue Hydro-Quebec for a bigger share of hydroelectric profits from the 1969 deal to develop the Churchill Falls project.

The Premier has said the agreement has reaped some $22-billion for Quebec but only about $1-billion for his province. Terms negotiated based on the commercial value of energy 40 years ago don't adjust for higher power values and will not expire until 2041.

Mr. Duceppe's tour marks the 20th anniversary since the deal to bring Quebec into the Constitution as a distinct society collapsed. The accord died when legislatures in Newfoundland and Manitoba failed to ratify it by the June 23, 1990 deadline.

Mr. Duceppe said his ideal vision for Quebec is as a sovereign nation within a larger "economic body" modelled on aspects of the North American free trade agreement or the European Union. But Bloc co-founder and former Parti Quebecois premier Lucien Bouchard said in February the province should focus on more pressing issues because sovereignty isn't achievable in the short term.

Political science student Brian Thoms asked Mr. Duceppe about the fiscal practicality of Quebec separation when the heavily indebted province faces a looming $4.5-billion deficit. "He never really answered what a sovereign Quebec would do to alleviate these issues without resorting to massive tax increases by filling the gap of the federal government's [existing]taxes and fees."

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Federal Conservative strategist Tim Powers, a Newfoundlander, said Mr. Duceppe can learn from his home province.

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