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Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard walks to his bus while campaigning, Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Trois-Rivieres Que.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Philippe Couillard is making the fiercest stand in defence of Canada in years while Pauline Marois sells the benefits of independence in the first election campaign in a generation to hinge so clearly on sovereignty.

Quebec political leaders have rarely engaged in full-throated, two-sided arguments over separation since 1994, when Jacques Parizeau rode to power on the promise of a referendum he delivered, and lost, one year later. The usual scenario lately has federalist leaders vaunting their nationalist credentials and separatist leaders trying to reassure voters they're more interested in good government than sovereignty.

The Liberals always want to warn of a separatist menace, but the Parti Québécois usually tries to talk about anything but. This time, the PQ expected to concentrate on selling another identity issue, the divisive secular charter banning some religious symbols and garments from the public service. Instead, the charter has faded from view.

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Mr. Couillard, the Liberal Leader, issued dire warnings Tuesday about the destruction of Canada and the debilitating damage Quebec would suffer should statehood come to pass.

He described a "new clergy" of Parti Québécois leadership, including media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau, who are prepared to do anything to gain independence.

Mr. Péladeau conclusively turned the election toward Quebec independence with his splashy arrival and declarations of impatience for sovereignty.

"Mr. Péladeau wants to destroy Canada," Mr. Couillard said. "Those who think they can separate Quebec from Canada without destroying anything, are in a world of illusion. The Parti Québécois for years have kept Quebeckers in a fantasy world, a world of illusion that has nothing to do with reality. I'm tearing down the curtain. We're done with illusions and an imaginary world."

The threat is being taken seriously in Ottawa, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper has deliberately kept quiet to avoid provoking controversy. Still, Edmonton Conservative MP Peter Goldring joined a group called the Special Committee for Canadian Unity that spoke out Tuesday urging Ottawa to intervene.

In a departure from recent PQ electoral tactics, Ms. Marois abandoned the strategy of soft-pedalling independence in favour of speaking clearly about what it could mean. She spoke of passports, the ease of travel from the remains of Canada to Quebec, and other matters of state. She did not, however, commit to holding a referendum.

She did maintain the tradition of reassuring Quebeckers they can have it both ways, saying separation "won't change our landscapes" – which include the Rocky Mountains and Prince Edward Island.

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"There won't be any borders and there won't be any tolls," said Ms. Marois, clearly relishing the question. "But that doesn't mean there wouldn't be a citizenship and a passport," she said.

The arrival of Mr. Péladeau has emboldened Ms. Marois, who has gained confidence on the sovereignty issue since the 2012 campaign. Harsh opposition attacks have not deterred her.

"It doesn't bother me at all. We are a sovereigntist party and to be able to mix sovereignty and economy is quite compatible," she said.

The Liberal strategy to endorse federalism more aggressively began to appear Saturday after a number of lesser-known Péquiste candidates wholeheartedly endorsed the immediate pursuit of independence. Mr. Péladeau allowed them to push harder as they try to frame the option facing voters as separation versus good government.

Mr. Couillard has been buoyed since, sharpening his stump speech and drawing larger crowds. The reason is clear: In nearly every public opinion poll of the past two years, a clear six of out 10 Quebeckers say they would vote No to a referendum.

While it's rarely pushed hard by the PQ in recent years, Liberals always at least raise the question of sovereignty in Quebec campaigns.

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In 1998, Quebec's last Captain Canada, Jean Charest, squared off against incumbent PQ premier and referendum hero Lucien Bouchard, but while the Liberal leader was intent on talking up sovereignty at every turn – at mid-campaign he unveiled his newly painted leader's bus which screamed "Non au référendum" on the side – Mr. Bouchard seemed more interested in trumpeting strong governance. In the event, Mr. Bouchard won a majority, but was left to brood over losing the popular vote.

In the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Ms. Marois went out of her way to speak only of holding a referendum when the timing was right. Questions of the consequences were mostly brushed off.

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