01/25/2013 02:56 EST | Updated 03/27/2013 05:12 EDT

Quebec Liberal front-runner: Let's speak differently about Canada

MONTREAL - The presumed front-runner to lead the pro-Canada forces in Quebec says it's time to celebrate more than just the economic benefits of belonging to the country.

Philippe Couillard is one of three candidates vying to become the next leader of the provincial Liberals, all of whom described their attachment to Canada in interviews with The Canadian Press.

The former health minister says he wants to change the conversation of Quebec federalists from one of pure pragmatism to one that's more idealistic about the country.

"I love the fact that we have managed to bring people together on a vast territory, that we have a shared history and we have much more in common — things that differentiate us, not separate us," the former Quebec health minister said.

"You should not base your allegiance to a country only on the economic factors, on fiscal factors — i.e. do you get more money out of it or not."

He says it's time to stop letting sovereigntists occupy that idealism terrain while federalists focus only on the practical benefits of Confederation.

"You see, the problem is that the separatist or sovereigntist discourse has always been based on a dream by definition. It's something that never happened, obviously, so it's by definition perfect and it's very nice and everybody's going to be happy and there will be no conflicts," Couillard said.

"Whereas federalism is today's reality and reality by definition is also made of tension and frictions and difficulty sometimes around specific issues.

"So my point also was to raise the level of the federalist discourse to the level of ideals, so we are on the same playing field as sovereigntists."

Couillard has penned an English- and French-language op-ed that reaches beyond Quebec's borders, and beyond recent history, to tout a former Canadian prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, as an inspirational figure for his party.

He celebrates the party's 19th century liberal heritage as one of openness — on economic matters, like entrepreneurship and free trade, and on social issues like cultural tolerance. In that letter, Couillard says that tradition is inextricably linked to the history of Canada.

Couillard is battling former finance minister Raymond Bachand and ex-transport minister Pierre Moreau for Jean Charest's old job as Liberal leader. Charest resigned after the party lost power to the Parti Quebecois in the September election.

The Canadian Press spoke to all three candidates, who will square off Saturday in the only English-language debate of the contest.

While the party has occasionally been staunchly nationalist, even briefly flirting with Quebec independence in the past, its modern iteration has been increasingly pro-Canadian. All three leadership hopefuls conveyed their admiration for the shared values between Canada and Quebec.

Bachand, who served as finance minister from 2009 until last September, said Quebecers have a deeply-rooted view within their identity that they are also Canadian.

He has swung across the political pendulum since the days when he was a senior aide to Parti Quebecois founder Rene Levesque and helped lead the Yes campaign in the 1980 independence referendum.

"For many, many years the Pequistes have tried to divide Quebecers in choosing: you're either a Quebecer or a Canadian," he said. "And that is false and it's destructive."

For his part, Moreau said Quebec has common values with Canada like justice, openness and tolerance.

He also underlined a more familiar theme in the province's politics — that of the economic benefits of being linked to Canada.

"You know, Canada is one of the strongest economies among G8 countries," Moreau said.

"Why would we ask ourselves if it's a good idea to belong to this country?"

That idea of self-interest is commonly heard in the province — where perhaps the most famous argument for Canadian unity of the last generation has been Charest waving his passport during speeches, as a warning of what could be lost with independence.

A McGill University political scientist agreed that the Quebec Liberals need a deeper "visioning exercise" as means of finding their place in the province.

But she's skeptical that it's actually happening.

Antonia Maioni also said she doesn't think any of the candidates have delivered a message about Canada that is much different than those of provincial Liberal leaders, or leadership contestants, in the past.

"The reasons they give for pro-Canada really have nothing to do with being Canadian," said Maioni, an associate professor.

"They have to do with the economic situation, they have to with the kinds of benefits for Quebec industry and trade and all of that."

She thinks Couillard's call to party members to look back to their own roots, from the days of Laurier, might be more about differentiating himself from his rivals than about expressing his profound convictions.

Maioni said the idea of resurrecting classical liberalism has become fashionable lately in the province's political-science circles, but she has doubts it will resonate with voters.

Couillard's idea to quote Laurier, Maioni said, appears to have been inspired by a recent biography on Canada's seventh prime minister, written by Montreal La Presse newspaper columnist Andre Pratte.

Maioni said the idea that the Liberal tradition was shaped by the federal party's first leader from Quebec is prevalent in Pratte's book.

"He's obviously been talking to Andre Pratte," she said.

The next leader will be chosen at a March leadership convention in Montreal.