uebec gets voice at UN organization
Pact will bolster national unity, PM says
QUEBEC -- Quebec may not be a nation in the eyes of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but the province's "specificity" and "unique personality" give it the right to a formal voice at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Yesterday, Mr. Harper and Premier Jean Charest signed an agreement that will give Quebec official representation in the Canadian delegation at UNESCO.
Quebec will be the only province with a "formal" voice at the UN body. Mr. Harper said he does not exclude the possibility of allowing other provinces a voice in other international forums. As if to prevent charges of pandering to Quebec, Mr. Harper insisted his government deals equally with all provinces.
"Federalism of openness does not mean playing favourites or stirring up jealousies, but it does mean that the time has come to forge a new relationship with the provinces," Mr. Harper said yesterday during the formal signing ceremony at the Quebec National Assembly.
The agreement symbolized the harmonious relationship Mr. Harper and Mr. Charest have developed since the Conservatives took office last February in an attempt to isolate the separatists with what Mr. Harper has called his "open federalism."
"This historic agreement represents neither centralization nor separation but an arrangement that symbolizes our vision of a strong, flexible Canadian federation," Mr. Harper said, adding that the agreement will bolster national unity.
Mr. Charest argued that the agreement is as much about provinces playing a more important role in the federation as it is about Quebec gaining a voice at UNESCO.
Mr. Harper is the first prime minister since Brian Mulroney to participate in a formal ceremony at the National Assembly. The UNESCO agreement was in keeping with a Conservative election promise and follows a federal budget that is committed to settling another of Quebec's demands, the fiscal imbalance, which has become a major irritant between Ottawa and Ontario.
Mr. Harper said Quebec's participation in the Canadian delegation at UNESCO is not a step toward a new round of constitutional talks nor is it recognition of Quebec as a nation in any form.
As a member of the Canadian delegation to UNESCO, Quebec will be allowed to express its position on issues of provincial jurisdiction, such as education and culture. In the event of a disagreement over a specific issue or treaty, the federal government's position will override Quebec's. However, the province alone will decide whether it proceeds with implementation in areas of its responsibility.
"We will be able to express our opinion at all times at UNESCO. . . .We will be able to speak freely, without any constraints," Mr. Charest said.
Mr. Harper warned that the UNESCO deal applies only if Quebec is willing to work within the federation.