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Couillard calls for Canadian unity and action on climate change

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne invited Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard to make the speech to highlight the increasingly close relationship between the two provinces.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

In a federalist cri de coeur before the Ontario Legislature, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard declared his province is ready to "reclaim its place" within a united Canada.

Mr. Couillard's historic speech Monday morning – he is the first Quebec Premier to address the assembly since Jean Lesage in 1964 – laid out a sweeping vision for the federation and Quebec's place within it.

He called on the federal government to step up its game in the battle against global warming and provide more funding for infrastructure, expounded on the importance of teaching French in every province and outlined his concept of federalism, describing Canadian provinces as individual "states" that must co-operate closely for the good of the country.

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"We are … a distinct society that has quit the sidelines to reclaim its place, its entire place: that of a leader in the Canadian federation it has contributed to build," he said. "Quebec progresses when it seeks to unite rather than divide, when it participates rather than excluding itself. Above all, when it builds bridges with its partners in the federation rather than putting up walls."

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne invited Mr. Couillard to highlight the increasingly close relationship between the two provinces, and their intent to build a Central Canadian alliance rivalling the West as the country's economic engine. After the speech, the two premiers signed a pact to make it easier for companies in their respective provinces to bid on each others' government contracts.

The love-in didn't go entirely as planned, however: New Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, making his debut in the legislature after winning the party leadership Saturday, used his thank-you speech to Mr. Couillard to skewer Ms. Wynne's government over high electricity rates.

"It is my hope and plan as Leader of the Ontario PC Party to look further at how you have managed your energy issues in Quebec and to see how we can make changes to our policies to position ourselves similarly," he said. "You focus on cheap power and you are able to attract jobs to your province."

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath took a similar tack, praising Quebec's government-owned electricity sector – a dig at Ms. Wynne's plan to privatize Hydro One.

Ms. Wynne seemed less than thrilled, smiling uncomfortably as Mr. Brown and Ms. Horwath spoke.

"It's all too easy to get trapped in the cut and thrust of particular issues, particular partisan or ideological positions. That's the easy route," she later told reporters.

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Ms. Wynne and Mr. Couillard are as chummy as any premiers of their respective provinces have been for decades. In their strongest show of mutual support, Ms. Wynne last month signed a deal for Ontario to join Quebec's cap-and-trade system. The move will create a carbon market covering more than half of Canada's population.

And Mr. Couillard devoted the strongest words of his Monday speech to global warming. He warned that the "cost of inaction is even greater" than the price of fighting back.

"We live today in an era that forces us to resist a false choice between economic development and environmental protection," he said. "This fight against climate change is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to develop a 21st-century economy."

Mr. Couillard called on federal political parties, ahead of next fall's election, to put forward their own plans for tackling global warming. He also laid out several other demands, including reforming equalization and changing the federal health transfer to take demographic factors into account rather than simply population. He also called for federal, provincial and municipal governments to collectively spend 5 per cent of annual GDP building infrastructure.

But he stopped short of calling for constitutional reform. Both he and Ms. Wynne later told reporters they would be happy to take part in constitutional talks, but would not be the ones to start them.

"I would not myself try to initiate this because I want it to be a winning day when this happens," Mr. Couillard said. "But it may happen that, for whatever reason, other parts of the country may want to revisit the Constitution … in that case, we have said, and we say again, that Quebec issues will be on the table."

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