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The Canadian flag is "a piece of red rag" and Quebec won't fly it in exchange for federal funding, says the man most likely to be the province's next premier.

Deputy Premier Bernard Landry was responding yesterday to questions about conditions placed by Ottawa on $18-million in federal money for major renovations at the Quebec City zoo and aquarium. The federal government insisted that for it to help fund the project, the Canadian flag would have to fly over the two for 40 years and all signs would have to be bilingual.

"We are not for sale. Quebec has no intention of streetwalking for a piece of red rag or anything else," said Mr. Landry, the only serious leadership contender to replace Premier Lucien Bouchard as Parti Québécois leader.

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His comments set the tone for the confrontational style he said he plans to adopt with Ottawa.

"It is really propaganda, and propaganda which borders on ridicule," Mr. Landry said of the federal flag demand.

"We are a calm people. But there are limits. This propaganda is costly, it is insidious and it is disrespectful of the Quebec nation. It is an attempt to dilute our national status."

The comments triggered a visceral reaction from Ottawa.

International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew said in a Radio-Canada television interview that Mr. Landry is penalizing Quebeckers by refusing to accept the tax dollars they paid to Ottawa while insulting them by demeaning the Canadian flag. "It is completely unacceptable to talk about the flag in that way. Because it was Quebeckers who helped build this country," he said.

Later in the day, Mr. Landry tried to backtrack, seeking out reporters to tell them he respects the Canadian flag and to deny comparing it to a rag. He said he was comparing federalist offences to matadors' practice of using a red cloth to provoke bulls.

"When I spoke of the red rag, I was not speaking of the Canadian flag. I meant the red cloth used in front of a bull to make it charge," he said.

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In a radio interview last night, Mr. Landry said Ottawa is using the Canadian flag to provoke Quebeckers the same way red capes are used to provoke bulls. "I have full respect for the Canadian flag. It is a beautiful one. But it must not be used as an instrument of provocation." The Quebec government decided to pay for most of the $47-million zoo and aquarium project without federal funds because bowing to Ottawa's demands would be a sellout, Mr. Landry said.

"Quebec is not bilingual. Since [former Liberal premier]Robert Bourassa, the only official language is French and we will not allow the federal government to bilingualize our national capital for a question of money," Mr. Landry said during a news conference at a PQ special caucus meeting yesterday.

He also took aim at federal Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Stéphane Dion for comments he made this week.

Mr. Dion had criticized the PQ's efforts at reviving sovereignty, triggering the first salvo of fierce exchanges between Mr. Landry and federal ministers.

"He [Mr. Dion]is the most despised politician in history. He even succeeds at being booed at funerals," Mr. Landry said, referring to the reaction of some fans attending hockey star Maurice Richard's funeral last year.

Mr. Landry is expected to be crowned PQ leader by the beginning of March. If so, he will be premier when Quebec plays host to the Summit of the Americas in April. He warned that he will find a way to get his message -- how shameful it is that Quebec is being denied its right to be at the table with other nations -- to the heads of states attending the meeting.

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"It is a perfect illustration of the Canadian problem. The central government of Canada considers Quebec as it does Alberta or New Brunswick or Saskatchewan, which is an absurdity to start with. It was as if [British Prime Minister]Tony Blair considered Scotland and Worcestershire as the same. There is a difference. Scotland is a nation," he said.

Mr. Landry also said Prime Minister Jean Chrétien should mind his own business after Mr. Chrétien warned yesterday that if the PQ is considering another referendum, it must abide by Bill C-20, the so-called clarity act that sets the terms for a vote on Quebec secession.

Mr. Landry warned that Quebec will likely ignore the federal act when it comes time to draft a referendum question. "The Quebec National Assembly will decide the question. And should the question imply that the profound desire of the Quebec people is to have a confederal union with the rest of Canada, the people will decide," he said.

Soon after returning from an annual economic meeting of business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland, next week, Mr. Landry will tour Quebec in an effort to revive the sovereignty debate among rank-and-file members of the PQ.

Yesterday's caucus meeting marked Mr. Bouchard's first public appearance since his surprise decision to resign less than two weeks ago. But he refused to get involved in the internal wrangling over the leadership race.

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