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Bernier suggests federal Liberal government would reignite sovereignty in Quebec

Maxime Bernier, Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism, speaks to reporters at the Conservative convention in Calgary, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

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Maxime Bernier, Minister of State for Small Business and Tourism, speaks to reporters at the Conservative convention in Calgary, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

MONTREAL - The election of a Liberal government in Ottawa in 2015 would reignite the sovereigntist flames in Quebec, federal cabinet minister Maxime Bernier suggested Tuesday.

Bernier said the independence option has traditionally been more popular in Quebec when the Liberals are in power at the federal level.

He also argued that Liberal governments tend to encroach more upon areas of provincial jurisdiction.

"We have to put an end to these constitutional squabbles," the minister of state for tourism, agriculture and small business said after a speech to a business group in Montreal.

"What I'm saying is that the Constitution must be respected. In the past, when the sovereignty movement was popular in Quebec, who was in (power in) Ottawa? There was an interventionist Liberal government."

Former federal Liberal leader Stephane Dion accused Bernier of trying to rewrite history.

"One can wonder what would have happened in the 1980 (sovereignty) referendum if Mr. (Joe) Clark had been in power instead of Mr. (Pierre Elliott) Trudeau, or in 1995 if Mr. (Preston) Manning had been there instead of Mr. (Jean) Chretien," Dion said in an interview.

"Not to mention the fact that when the Parti Quebecois took power in 2012, the Conservatives were in power."

During his speech, Bernier zeroed in on both federal opposition parties.

He slammed the Liberals, saying they have been the party of centralization for years and one that interferes in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

"Now again, its leader, Justin Trudeau, is proposing that the federal government interfere in the area of education, an exclusively provincial area of jurisdiction according to our Constitution," Bernier said.

He also criticized the NDP, describing it as "a social party that wants to centralize everything so it can intervene everywhere."

Bernier offered up the Conservatives' vision, which he described as that of a more modest, less interventionist government that respects provincial autonomy.

"The Conservative Party of Canada is the natural vehicle for advancing the vision of federalism that is most widely embraced in Quebec," he added.

The MP also said Quebec should review its interventionist policies if it wants to generate wealth, regain some pride and rediscover its place in Canada.

He said it is time for Quebec to stop begging the federal government for help.

Bernier said Quebec's nationalist elite must get over certain events such as the British victory on the Plains of Abraham.

The federal minister also assailed the concept of "profitable federalism" as coined by former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa as a response to the independent discourse during the 1970s.

"Federalist and separatist Quebec governments have both used the threat of separation to go and get more money," he noted. "Even when Ottawa sends more money, the reaction in Quebec City is that it's never enough."

Bernier added that as a Quebecer he is not very proud of the fact that Quebec is a poor province he said will receive $9.3 billion in equalization payments this year.

"It's not the rest of Canada's fault that we are a poorer province, as the separatists would have us believe.

"If we are poorer, it's because of bad economic policies that make Quebec's economy less productive."

Dion said it was misleading for Bernier to leave the impression that Quebec is a beggar who is constantly knocking on Ottawa's door.

"To receive equalization payments is not something you should be ashamed of," he said.

"Canada is one of the richest countries in the world, so to be less rich than the (Canadian) average — as is Quebec — well, it's not a failure," he said. "It's only something that you need to improve."

Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao also dismissed Bernier's begging-related remark.

Bernier, meanwhile, blamed the attitude of Quebecers for constitutional and referendum failures over the past 50 years.

"One of the biggest reasons for these failures in my view, has been an unhealthy and unrealistic attitude, he said. "We need to change our attitude."

His comments came on the anniversary of the first sovereignty referendum in Quebec, which was held on May 20, 1980.

The referendum question asked Quebecers for a mandate to negotiate a new sovereignty-association agreement with the rest of Canada. The federalist No side won with about 60 per cent of the vote.

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