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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Arch foes in the battle over whether Quebec should gain independence from Canada looked like best friends on Monday as they sat down to sign an agreement to try to wrest power from the minority Conservative government.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion, who got into politics in 1996 to fight Quebec separatism, sat next to Gilles Duceppe, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois -- as well as the head of the federalist New Democratic Party, Jack Layton.
Standing directly behind the signing table in the grand Railway Committee Room of the House of Commons was a solitary Canadian flag -- and no Quebec flag.
"We are in Canada. I'm pleased by it, he's not," Dion said, referring to Duceppe. "But ... we have agreed to do something in these tough times, to do it as democrats."
"I trust him, we'll work with him for that. For the rest, we'll continue to have a respectful democratic disagreement," Dion said.
To laughter, Duceppe shot a quick rejoinder to suggest they would continue to disagree on Quebec's future: "Believe me!"
The three parties came together in the space of several days to try to put the boot to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives, re-elected with a strengthened minority on October 14.
Duceppe said he did not have to give up his political goals to sign an agreement which would see the Liberals and New Democrats form a coalition government with the explicit written support of the Bloc.
"I'm not renouncing where I have come from and I think in doing what I'm doing I am advancing the struggle for which I am in politics."
Overlooking the signing ceremony was a grand painting of the "Fathers of Confederation" who gave birth to Canada as a nation in 1867. The Railway Committee Room has overseen the signing of many international agreements and also hosted a news conference with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999.
Jack Layton looked positively giddy that his leftist New Democrats might win their first cabinet portfolios in a Canadian government. He won only 37 of Parliament's 308 seats and runs the smallest party.
He and the other party leaders were spurred into action when Harper tried to cut off direct public subsidies of the political parties, and also complained the Conservatives are not doing enough to fight the global economic slowdown.
It was not certain that they would succeed in displacing Harper, however. It was possible the prime minister might seek to have Parliament suspended temporarily, or he might seek a fresh election.
Duceppe referred to the rabbits Harper seems to be able to pull out of the hat, but deadpanned, "We need a prime minister, not a magician."
Editing by Mohammad Zargham