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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Canada Rivals Trade Barbs on Quebec

TORONTO -- Prime Minister Jean Chretien's cautious strategy for keeping Quebec in Canada came under fire as he and four rivals engaged in the only full-fledged television debate in the federal election campaign.

Chretien, a heavy favorite to win the balloting June 2, said Monday he espoused a one-step-at-a-time approach toward Quebec, gradually giving it and other provinces more control over various programs.

But Gilles Duceppe, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, said the mostly French-speaking province would never be satisfied with anything short of independence.

His party serves in parliament only as a voice for Quebeckers who want their mostly French-speaking province to secede from Canada.

Preston Manning, leader of the right-wing Reform Party, said Chretien was going too far in offering Quebec privileges not enjoyed by other provinces.

Manning accused Chretien of being unprepared for the separatists' strong showing in a 1995 independence referendum, when they won 49.4 percent of the votes. He also renewed his criticism of Chretien's proposal to give Quebec constitutional recognition as a "distinct society."

But Chretien, a native Quebecker, said he simply sought to recognize the reality that Quebec has a distinctive language and culture.

"I'm just asking the people of Canada to be generous to Quebec, and they will be very happy to stay in Canada," Chretien said.

Chretien's Liberal Party swept to power in 1993, capitalizing on the unpopularity of Brian Mulroney, the Progressive Conservative prime minister who stepped down before the election.

After two years of record-high ratings in the polls, Chretien's popularity has faded slightly over the past year. He decided to call an election 18 months before his term expires because opposition parties appear too weak to threaten the Liberals.

Recent polls give the Liberals more than 40 percent support, while their strongest rival, the Progressive Conservative party, has less than 20 percent.

Monday's debate, in English, was the only chance for all four opposition candidates to engage Chretien in a face-to-face exchange. A second debate in French was scheduled for Tuesday night, but Manning was not granted full participation because he doesn't speak French.

Along with Quebec separatism, economic policy was the main battleground in Monday's 2 1/2-hour debate.

Manning and Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest insisted the way to reduce Canada's 9.6 percent jobless rate is to kick-start the economy through tax cuts that would leave more money in the hands of consumers and businesses.

"They work for it. They earn it. They deserve to keep the money," Charest said.

Manning scoffed at the Liberals' 1993 pledge to focus on job creation.

"You made this promise last time of jobs, jobs, jobs," he said. "I have not seen ... that you have an understanding of how a job is created in the modern economy."