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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard shake hands at a celebration marking the 200th anniversary of George-Étienne Cartie on Sept. 6 in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says getting the province into the constitutional fold is desirable but not a priority for now.

During a visit on Sunday to the Western Festival of St. Tite, Que., Mr. Couillard told reporters a speech he gave in Quebec City on Saturday did not mention wanting to see Quebec sign on by 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation, as some media outlets reported.

"The speech does not talk about signing the Constitution or anything. It talks about the fact that Quebec and Quebeckers are one of the founding partners of this country, Canada, and that it will be necessary to take another look at that theme for the 150th anniversary," Mr. Couillard said.

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"Our government's priority above all is the economy and jobs. So much the better if we succeed in moving the [Constitution] file forward but it's not at all a daily priority for us."

He took a sly dig at the separatist Parti Québécois, some of whose members quickly criticized his reported comments from Saturday's speech.

"I am touched that the Parti Québécois wants to take part in the renewal of Canada. It moves me deeply."

Mr. Couillard's speech on Saturday was at an event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir George-Étienne Cartier, a French-Canadian statesman considered one of the Fathers of Confederation.

Mr. Couillard was accompanied at the plaque-unveiling by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who lauded Mr. Cartier as "one of the great architects of modern-day Canada" and a defender of provincial rights within the federation.

"We believe jobs and the economy are the priorities of Canadians, including Quebeckers," Carl Vallée, a spokesman for the Prime Minister, said in an e-mail on Sunday.

"Our government will continue to practice a federalism that respects Quebec and provincial jurisdiction, and we have no intention of re-opening the Constitution."

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Earlier this year, during the provincial election campaign, Mr. Couillard appeared to back away from statements he made about a commitment to the 1982 Constitution after the PQ attacked his position.

Last year, after winning the leadership of the federalist Quebec Liberal Party, the former Quebec health minister also expressed the hope that a constitutional deal could be reached with the rest of Canada in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

Mr. Couillard won a strong majority on April 7 of this year, defeating the PQ minority government.

The issue of Quebec's signing on to the Constitution is controversial, especially in light of the 1990 failure of concerted attempts to amend the historic document to include the province.

The collapse of the Meech Lake accord – on which late Quebec premier Robert Bourassa and then-prime minister Brian Mulroney worked in concert – helped fan the flames of the prosovereignty movement in the province, emboldening the PQ government in 1995 to stage a referendum, which it lost by a whisker.

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