Quebec's new government keen to discuss internal Canadian trade: minister

MONTREAL – Quebec’s new point man on relations with Canada says his province is eager to join talks to improve country-wide internal trade, a barrier-busting goal his freshly elected government shares with Ottawa.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Fournier told The Canadian Press in an interview this is just one example of how the pro-Confederation Liberal government wants to forge closer ties with the rest of the country.

“This is a government that wants to build Canada, that wants to build links with other provinces, that wants to multiply the reasons to be together,” said Fournier, whose party defeated the pro-independence Parti Quebecois government on April 7.

“We want to create growth, we want to create jobs and we know that (some) of the jobs that we’ll have will be created because we will export to Ontario, New Brunswick or elsewhere.”

Fournier’s comments on internal trade came in response to news that Ottawa had initiated talks with the provinces toward forging a new, internal free-trade agreement.

Federal Industry Minister James Moore told the National Post in an interview last week that the former PQ government had no interest in working out a cross-Canada deal that would replace the patchwork system signed 20 years ago.

Moore said in the interview the election of the federalist Liberals in Quebec has helped create a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to make headway on the issue.

“This summer, we are going to be working with all of my provincial counterparts to ensure that we have a new agreement of free trade within Canada,” Moore later told the House of Commons.

The federal government has cited estimates that say existing trade hurdles cost the Canadian economy $50 billion per year.

Fournier pointed to a primary reason why Quebec is open to a deal: the better provincial economies perform, the more they will buy from Quebec — and vice versa.

“The growth in other provinces is a way to achieve growth in Quebec,” said Fournier, who serves as government house leader and the minister responsible for la Francophonie.

Philippe Couillard’s Liberals won a majority mandate in the recent election, beating Pauline Marois’s PQ government just 18 months after she came to power.

Fournier said his party’s win had a direct impact on the Intergovernmental Affairs Department.

The PQ, he noted, had added the ministerial responsibility of “sovereigntist governance” to his predecessor’s title.

That duty has been wiped from his business card, he said.

“It’s the opposite of building relations,” Fournier said of the PQ approach.

“It’s breaking relations.”

Fournier also highlighted other potential areas where his province could build a stronger bond with the rest of the country.

Among his examples, he said he hopes to reconnect Quebecers with other Canadian francophones who live outside the province’s borders. He also plans to invite his counterparts to join Quebec-California cap-and-trade programs aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the road to closer ties with the federation could be bumpy when it comes to transfer payments.

Fournier said Quebec still has claims to make with Ottawa, though he declined to go into specifics about where he sees gaps.

Ottawa has repeatedly maintained there is no longer a fiscal imbalance.

Federal cabinet minister Maxime Bernier said in a recent speech that it’s time for Quebec to stop begging the federation for help.

“It’s not begging,” said Fournier, who noted that it’s about making sure the equalization formula in the Constitution is respected.

“There’s no special treatment for Quebec in that field…We will fight for our fair share the same as Newfoundlanders do, as Albertans do, as Ontarians do.”

A veteran of provincial and federal politics, Fournier has served as interim Liberal leader and held several cabinet posts over the years in Jean Charest’s former government.

Today, he sits on the Liberal government’s highly influential committee for priorities and strategic projects, a group made up of just himself, Couillard and deputy premier Lise Theriault.

In Ottawa, Fournier worked on Paul Martin’s failed bid for the leadership of the federal Liberals in 1989-’90. More recently, he was principal secretary for the Liberals’ Michael Ignatieff, during his time as opposition leader.

When asked what he took away from his most recent stint in Ottawa, Fourner said he came to realize Canada is a vast country filled with many different points of view.

“We must open doors and windows and create moments of discussion,” he said.

Fournier said the rest of Canada should expect to see Couillard channel his energy into his top priority: fixing Quebec’s battered economy.

On Wednesday, Couillard’s government will table its first budget, a blueprint that will project another deficit for Canada’s most-indebted province.

The premier has promised to balance the books by 2015-16 and has warned hard decisions will be needed to reach that goal.

“We would like to be an economic leader of Canada, nobody would contest that,” Fournier said.

“It is not the case right now.”

In predicting the future relationship between Quebec and the federation, Couillard is seen as more outwardly pro-Canada than Charest.

When asked about their differences, Fournier declined to compare the approaches of his former boss, Charest, and that of Couillard.

“The real answer is that we’re pro-Quebec, and for Quebec, belonging to Canada brings advantages, but reciprocal advantages,” he said of the Liberals.

“We will always defend the interests of Quebec, like the leaders of Ontario will always defend the interests of Ontario. And because each of us defends our interests well, Canada will be a success.”

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