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Couillard defends Canada as legislature returns

QUEBEC - Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard has given a clear indication of his election strategy, vaunting the merits of Canada while in the same breath saying he is a proud Quebecer.

The former health minister won a byelection last December and his return to the national assembly on Tuesday came against the backdrop of the possibility of a Quebec election as early as April.

Couillard's address to the legislature was littered with references to the advantages he sees in Quebec remaining within Confederation.

"We are Quebecers first, but we are also proud to belong to the Canadian federation," he said.

"This belonging provides us the opportunity to benefit from the major economic and financial entity that is Canada. That is a positive impact that is easy to show.

"But beyond the numbers and the billions, it's first and foremost for us the choice of a model of citizenship that is the envy of the entire planet."

That kind of talk will obviously clash with Premier Pauline Marois' expected election strategy of promoting Quebec independence and blaming Ottawa for many of the province's problems.

Marois, whose Parti Quebecois currently forms a minority government, is believed to be tempted to cash in on favourable opinion polls suggesting she could form a majority.

If re-elected with that majority, Marois has promised her party would consult Quebecers on whether the province should hold another referendum on independence.

One of Couillard's challenges will be to cut into the PQ's lead among francophones, who determine the winner of most of the province's 125 ridings.

The Liberals and the third-placed Coalition for Quebec's Future have been hammering the PQ for weeks to table a budget before calling an election so Quebecers can get an updated picture of the province's finances.

On Tuesday, Marois refused to commit to Couillard's request, saying only that Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau was getting down to preparing one.

There are rumours of a Feb. 20 budget.

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