MONTREAL - As Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard delivered his strongest attack yet against sovereignty Tuesday, Pauline Marois talked up a border-less Quebec country that would open its arms to tourists from Canada.
Day 7 of Quebec's election campaign saw battle lines clearly drawn, with independence again emerging as the overarching issue.
Marois's attempted focus on the economy was sideswiped by a question about whether a sovereign Quebec would be more attractive as a tourism destination.
"It won't change our landscapes, that's for sure," the Parti Quebecois leader said with a laugh at a campaign stop near Lac-Megantic.
"We'll still be able to go see the Rockies out West and go to Prince Edward Island and they'll be able to come here. There won't be any borders or tolls."
The border comments followed Marois to another campaign stop, prompting her to agree with a reporter's assertion that an independent Quebec would not be unlike the European Union, where there is free movement of citizens.
"That's what it means, but that's not to say there wouldn't be a (Quebec) citizenship and, as such, a passport," Marois said.
Couillard, meanwhile, launched his strongest anti-sovereigntist message yet, with the federalist leader accusing the PQ of hurting Quebec with its constant musings about referendums and separation.
"The choice is clear," he said. "Do you want a government that is going to focus on a referendum and the separation of Quebec or do you want a government that is going to concentrate on the economy, jobs, health care and education?"
Couillard suggested his political foes should tone down the rhetoric, for the sake of the province.
"Every time they hint at a referendum, Quebec is weakened," he said, asserting that a separate Quebec would be severely crippled economically and that Canada would feel the ripple effect.
"Of course the economy will be in serious trouble. Madame Marois herself said a few years ago that we would be facing at least five years of disturbances. I think she's being very conservative in what she's planning for Quebec."
The impact on the province would be harsh, Couillard added.
"It will severely, severely hurt Quebec for many, many, many years, economically," he said.
But Couillard added the issue goes beyond finances as he once again made no bones about displaying his pro-Canada beliefs.
"We founded this country with our fellow Canadians. Why should we give away part of our heritage, of our history? The citizenship is also part of our identity and history, contrary to what the PQ repeats always — that we need a different citizenship.
"The Canadian citizenship is part of Quebec's identity. We took part in this foundation of this country. We are an essential part of what makes Canada such a great place to live in the world."
Quebec independence would destroy the rest of Canada because the province is an "essential part" of the country and its "distinct character" is part of what makes Canada so interesting.
Couillard also harked back to the failed 1990 Meech Lake constitutional agreement, which would have recognized Quebec as a distinct society.
"Canada didn't refuse (to sign Meech)," he said. "Some provinces did not endorse Meech Lake but that doesn't mean Canada turned it down."
Couillard said he believes Canadians in other provinces realize Meech was a "missed opportunity."
"It should have (been approved by everyone). But you don't reject a country because it wasn't. What's that all about?"
In other news Tuesday, 12 well-known sovereigntists signed an open letter supporting Pierre Karl Peladeau, the media mogul whose decision to run for the PQ has turned the campaign on its head.
Peladeau has been urged in many quarters to sell his shares in the Quebecor media empire to erase any concerns about conflict of interest.
The signatories, who include former premiers Bernard Landry and Jacques Parizeau and ex-Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, say forcing Peladeau to sell his interests in a company founded by his family "seems excessive."
They say such a scenario could see outsiders scoop up Quebecor, described in the letter as a "jewel of our cultural industry."
— With files from Canadian Press reporters Patrice Bergeron in Trois-Rivieres, Alexandre Robillard in Lac-Megantic and Melanie Marquis in Quebec City.
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