Canada's Quebec wants constitutional talks despite Trudeau opposition

MONTREAL (Reuters) - The mainly French-speaking province of Quebec, which came close to voting to leave Canada 22 years ago, said on Thursday it wants to reopen constitutional talks and be recognized for its distinct linguistic and cultural character.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a media conference with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni in Rome, Italy May 30, 2017. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

The issue is a new headache for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is gearing up for the renegotiation of NAFTA with the United States and Mexico and saw his pipeline policy thrown into disarray this week by election results in the west coast province of British Columbia.

Trudeau threw cold water on the proposal from the vote-rich province, saying on Thursday he would “not reopen Canada’s constitution.”

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, whose provincial Liberal Party is federalist and does not support secession, said “Canada can be improved upon” and his party would proceed with its plans.

“We are Quebecers. Our nation is the founder of the country,” he told reporters. “We will engage in dialogue with other Canadians.”

Critics have said Couillard may be trying to drive political support for his party ahead of a provincial election in 2018 against the separatist Parti Quebecois.

Trudeau’s late father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was prime minister in 1982 when Quebec opposed passage of Canada’s Constitution Act, arguing it lacked sufficient guarantees to protect the province’s identity as a French-language jurisdiction in a mostly English-speaking country. Quebec has not signed on to the constitution

Besides being recognized as a distinct society, Quebec also wants a constitutional veto right, increased control over immigration, a guaranteed spot on the Supreme Court and a curb on federal spending powers.

The province holds 78 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons and Trudeau’s Liberals need to win extra seats there to offset expected losses elsewhere in 2019.

Minister of International Trade François-Philippe Champagne said there was no risk in refusing to reopen the constitutional debate because such talks were not what Quebecers wanted, and the province and federal governments already worked well together.

“What the people obviously want is for us to work to advance the economy,” Champagne told reporters in Ottawa.

The Quebec premier said that cooperation between Quebec and other provinces, and greater acceptance of French within the country, made it the right time to reopen talks this year, Canada’s 150th anniversary.

“I think it’s one of the historic days in the evolution of Quebec-Canada relations,” Couillard told reporters.

Reporting by Allison Lampert; Editing by Peter Cooney