03/19/2013 23:39 EDT | Updated 05/19/2013 05:12 EDT

PQ slams new Liberal leader's constitution hopes

Quebec's Parti Québécois government has accused the newly elected leader of the Liberal opposition of "improvising" for expressing his hope of seeing the province's signature on the Canadian Constitution by 2017.

Philippe Couillard said Monday he believes a deal could be reached with the rest of Canada to include Quebec's signature in the historic 1982 document in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

"As a value, as a symbol, as a sign for a country, the fact that one of the most important provinces in Canada is not there on this document, to me is important and cannot be trivialized," Couillard said.

The last time a Quebec government tried to have the Constitution amended to include Quebec — and recognize its "distinct status" — was when the late Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa worked in concert with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to pass the Meech Lake Accord in the late 1980s.

That three-year effort collapsed in 1990, when the provinces of Manitoba and Newfoundland failed to support the accord, stirring up sovereignist sentiment in Quebec and ultimately helping to create the conditions for the 1995 sovereignty referendum.

Couillard's hope 'surprising'

The federal government does not seem to be in any hurry to open the door to renewed constitutional wrangling.

"I think people want us to focus on the economy," Industry Minister Christian Paradis said on Parliament Hill on Tuesday.

At Quebec's national assembly, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier dismissed Couillard's proposal as "improvisation."

"He's saying, on the one hand, it is very important for Quebecers to sign the Constitution, but on the other hand, he's not able to say why it is so important and what he is asking [of] Quebecers," Cloutier said.

Quebec's second opposition party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, sides with the PQ on the issue.

"It's not the priority," CAQ Leader François Legault said. "I think right now we should be talking about the economy, about good management, about how we get rid of the equalization payments from the rest of Canada."

But Liberals who support Couillard's position say it may be worth the risk to try to get Quebec's signature on the Constitution after more than 30 years.

If successful, they say, it would neutralize Quebec's sovereignty movement for years to come.