OTTAWA (Reuters) - The premier of Newfoundland raised the sensitive question of Canadian national unity on Wednesday by saying the French-speaking province of Quebec has so many privileges that it is damaging Canada.
Since the 1970s Canada has faced a challenge from Quebec separatists seeking independence for the huge eastern province of 7.5 million. A Quebec referendum on independence in 1995 only just failed, sending shock waves through the country.
Since then federal governments have stressed the importance of Quebec and paid it special attention. Few politicians openly complain for fear of setting off new nationalist strains.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, whose Atlantic province has a long-standing grievance with Quebec over energy transmission, said that Quebec has got its own way too often.
“This ... results in the strangulation of the individual interests of other provinces that don’t fit the agenda of Quebec,” he said in a speech in Ottawa.
“This is not good for us, individually, provincially or nationally and it creates a serious inequity in our great country. The tail is really wagging the dog and it must stop.”
Williams, a famously outspoken figure, has expressed his unhappiness with Quebec before but rarely in such blunt terms and never in the federal capital Ottawa.
Openly attacking Quebec is considered political suicide for federal parties. Canada has had three successive minority governments since June 2004, largely because most of Quebec’s 75 seats in the federal House of Commons -- almost a quarter of the total -- are held by separatists.
Newfoundland has accused Quebec for years of unfairly profiting from a deal to export power from the Upper Churchill Falls hydroelectric facility in Labrador, near its border with Quebec. Transmission lines from Churchill Falls must pass through Quebec for power to reach the U.S. market.
Newfoundland now plans to export power to Eastern Canada and the United States from a proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric plant but says Quebec is being obstructionist.
Last month the Quebec energy regulator dismissed Newfoundland’s complaint that provincial energy firm Hydro-Quebec was not allowing fair and open access to its transmission lines.
“(The) decision was so absurd and wrong it was frankly embarrassing to Quebec,” Williams said.
“The shock to me as a provincial leader is the sense of greed and arrogance and entitlement displayed by Quebec.”
Gilles Duceppe, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, said Williams was being a bad loser.
“I don’t get worked up when he gets worked up. This gentleman gets worked up a lot ... he’s mad against Quebec,” he told reporters in Ottawa.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway