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Newly elected Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard has proposed a new round of talks that would allow Quebec to sign the Constitution by 2017.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The federal government has categorically rejected newly elected Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard's proposal to reopen the constitutional debate.

The Conservative government said it wants no part of Mr. Couillard's proposal for a new round of talks that would allow Quebec to sign the Constitution by 2017.

"People want us to focus on the economy, and this is what we are working for," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Christian Paradis.

Federal Minister of State Maxime Bernier argued that no one in Quebec would be interested in such an initiative. "The priority of Quebeckers is jobs, jobs and jobs. … So I think he should be in line with the priorities of the citizens of Quebec."

In reawakening the constitutional debate, Mr. Couillard has rattled the cages of both the separatist and federalist camps, drawing attention to an issue that has been taboo for years.

During his nine years in power, former Liberal premier Jean Charest insisted that the "fruit was not ripe" for a new round of talks that would have Quebec sign the Constitution, so the Parti Québécois government was surprised by Mr. Couillard's sudden change of policy.

"I'm a bit amazed by his position. He seems to want to settle this in a hurry," Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said. "What is he trying to prove … Does he mean he will ratify it [the Constitution] without demanding anything?"

When asked what it would take for her to sign the Constitution, Ms. Marois said it would have to be rewritten "to at least recognize Quebec as one of the two founding nations and its ability to intervene in linguistic matters." But she suddenly backpedalled to say that her government would never sign the Constitution and would accept nothing less than sovereignty.

The strong criticism of his proposal by both Ottawa and the PQ indicated that Mr. Couillard may have touched on a sensitive nationalist chord that could eventually pay dividends for his party. He believes that by raising the Quebec identity issue he can succeed in bringing back disaffected francophone federalists who supported the Coalition Avenir Québec party in the last election.

"We will have discussions in the party on the identity of Quebec – the distinct and specific character of Quebec … The identity issue concerns Quebeckers," Mr. Couillard said before heading into his first caucus meeting as leader, where he was greeted with a loud round of cheers and applause.

The CAQ will be carefully monitoring voter reaction to Mr. Couillard's proposal. Party Leader François Legault lashed out at Mr. Couillard, saying Quebeckers were fed up with the old federalist-sovereigntist divide.

"It's not a priority," Mr. Legault said about the proposed constitutional talks, reiterating the need to put the issue on hold for at least another decade. "I am not against Canada. We need to have a nationalist coalition that will defend Quebec but that will focus on other priorities than the Constitution."

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