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Quebec and Ottawa are close to an agreement that will allow the province to have a voice at UNESCO, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said yesterday in emphasizing his government's "open federalism" policy toward Quebec.

For the first time in 22 years, a Canadian prime minister met with a Quebec premier at the National Assembly in what Premier Jean Charest dubbed the beginning of a new era of federal-provincial co-operation. It was the third face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since Mr. Harper's government was sworn in.

An agreement on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization carries great symbolic meaning for the Quebec government in its bid to prove that Mr. Harper's proposals for renewing federalism can work in the province's favour.

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"Mr. Charest and I have agreed to task our respective ministers to move forward on ensuring that Quebec's voice be heard at UNESCO," Mr. Harper said at the conclusion of a two-hour meeting. "There are a couple of proposals on the table. And as I say, we are flexible and very optimistic we are going to reach a solution sooner rather than later."

However, the Prime Minister made it clear his government has no intention of asking the United Nations to change the rules to give Quebec special status in the international body.

According to UN rules, only sovereign nations have the right to be represented at UNESCO. That means Quebec's participation would be subject to federal supervision and that the province would speak on issues only with Ottawa's permission.

Progress also was made on defining a process to address the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces.

The Prime Minister said he will table proposals for discussion this spring but did not indicate a timetable for reaching an agreement. "I expect to get a lot of reaction from the provinces and the public and we will then see whether we have any basis to move forward on a unified solution."

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