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Quebec Premier Jean Charest said Thursday that a vibrant relationship with the United States is a "top priority" for a province that already has close ties with Americans.

"We may not always speak with the same accent, but when it comes to business, our language is universal," Mr. Charest said in a speech to businessmen at the Foreign Policy Association.

The Premier, who is on his second trip to New York since being elected last April, knows there are big incentives for Quebec to continue to encourage trade and commerce with the United States.

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Quebec has become the fourth largest export market for the United States, and the province sells twice as much to Americans as it does to Canadians living outside Quebec, Mr. Charest said.

"A strong, open, productive relationship with the United States is a top priority for our government," he said, noting 85 per cent of Quebec's international exported goods are purchased in the United States and represented $36.5-billion (U.S.) last year.

Mr. Charest also reminded his audience that his Liberals' election victory was a clear mandate from Quebeckers for him to work with the rest of Canada.

"By electing our government, Quebeckers have renewed their attachment to Canada," he said. "My government is federalist. We are going to be an active member of the Canadian federation."

Mr. Charest said he is pleased the other premiers accepted a proposal from Quebec to create the Council of the Federation, which is intended to unite provinces on issues such as health care and internal trade.

"This council will soon take an active role in permanent co-operation among our governments," he said.

Mr. Charest warmed up his audience with a joke about how Canada could have had everything - French culture, the British system of government and American know-how - but instead ended up with British know-how, American culture and the French system of government.

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Those attending the luncheon presentation appreciated Mr. Charest's message.

"He sounds like a good advocate for liberalization and increased confidence by New York and American investors," said Owen Kurtin, an American lawyer for the Salans law firm.

"It's a sign that, to whatever extent Quebec separatism caused any nervousness among American investors, which I always thought was unjustified, that nervousness should be dispelled."

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