March 6, 2008 / 1:39 AM / 10 years ago

Quebec separatists soften idea of break with Canada

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The leader of a separatist party in French-speaking Quebec said on Wednesday she wants to scrap the movement’s commitment to seek a quick break from the rest of Canada if it wins power.

<p>Newly elected Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois (bottom R) speaks as session resumes at the National Assembly in Quebec City October 16, 2007. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger</p>

Polls show the opposition Parti Quebecois (PQ) trails the province’s Liberal government, in part because of nervousness about a pledge to hold a referendum on independence in the first year of its mandate.

The PQ performed badly in the last provincial election, in March 2007, and quickly ditched its then leader.

The PQ will discuss a new policy platform later this month and leader Pauline Marois, who took over in June, said if the party wins the next election she wants to start “a national conversation” with Quebecers about sovereignty.

“I am breaking the mold by proposing ... that we suspend the obligation to have a referendum in the first part of our mandate,” she told a televised news conference.

She declined to say when a future PQ government might hold a referendum, saying: “I am removing an obligation, I don’t want to create another one now.”

Quebec voted against separation from Canada in referendums held in 1980 and 1995, both times when the PQ was in power.

The comments were the latest Marois has made on the need to slow down the rush to hold a referendum.

“We will take a decision when it is right to do so,” she said on Wednesday.

It is unlikely that her call for moderation will please hard-liners in the PQ, who in the past have shown little patience with leaders they deem to be dragging their feet.

“We are a sovereigntist party. We will focus again on the debate around the idea of a country,” Marois said.

Rona Ambrose, the minister who handles relations with the provinces for the federal Conservative government, did not answer reporters’ questions about the comments by Marois.

In the wake of the 1995 referendum, which only just failed, the then Liberal federal government pushed through a law to make Quebec independence harder. It says Ottawa would reject a secession bids unless a large majority of Quebecers voted in favor of a clearly worded motion seeking to break away.

The 1995 ballot asked Quebecers whether the province “should become sovereign after having formally offered Canada a new economic and political partnership.”

The federal government said this wording was unclear and could deceive voters into thinking they could vote “yes” and still stay part of Canada.

The law was pushed through by Stephane Dion, who is now leader of the federal Liberal Party. He said Marois had done the right thing.

“A responsible secessionist leader should not rush to a referendum (but) should first build strong support -- a clear majority -- for separation,” he told reporters, saying he was sure the province would never leave Canada.

Polls show that between 45 and 50 percent of Quebecers would currently vote in favor of the 1995 ballot question.

The Liberal government has a minority of seats in Quebec’s National Assembly and will collapse if it cannot garner opposition support for a budget to be presented on March 13.

Polls show the most likely result of an election now would be another unstable Liberal minority government.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway

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