NDP Leader Jack Layton is willing to reopen talks on the Canadian Constitution in an effort to get Quebec to sign the document once there was a "reasonable chance of success."
Layton was asked about the issue of constitutional talks on Tuesday in Montreal, where he is trying to capitalize on an apparent sharp increase in support for the NDP in recent public opinion polls.
The NDP leader, however, said he does not think the federal government should enter into constitutional negotiations with the provinces until "there is some reasonable chance of success."
"It’s not a question of appeasing anybody. We have an historic problem. We have a quarter of our population who have never signed the Constitution. That can’t go on forever," Layton said.
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"What we do believe is you start to create those winning conditions by replacing the Harper government, by respecting the people of Quebec and their hopes and their aspirations and starting to take steps in the House of Commons that show to Quebec there is an appreciation of some of their key issues."
Layton called Quebec's exclusion from the Constitution in 1982 a gap in the country's political history. However, he said constitutional discussions would not be a top priority for the NDP.
"There is a significant gap … and [it] has to be addressed some day," Layton said.
"We don’t see it as an immediate issue. The issues of immediate concern to people are getting a job, the fact that they don’t have doctors, the retirement security issues."
Speaking in Asbestos, Que., Conservative Leader Stephen Harper criticized Layton's gambit on Quebec and constitutional talks.
"As we go across the country in Quebec and elsewhere, this is not the priority of Canadians. They do not want an unstable government that is going to spend time arguing about the Constitution," Harper said.
"We went through that for 20 years. We are in the middle of an economic recovery and the real priority for families are jobs, growth, affordable services and keep their taxes down and those will be the priorities of the Conservative government, not resurrecting old constitutional debates."
Constitution talk 'premature': Ignatieff
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff also took issue with Layton's decision to discuss reopening constitutional talks, saying any talk of negotiations is "premature."
"Mr. Layton wants to take us down a constitutional trip that I just don't think is responsible," Ignatieff told reporters Tuesday in Vancouver.
The Liberal leader also said Layton "soft-pedals" the issue of constitutional negotiations in English Canada while pushing it harder in Quebec.
His comments came as the Liberals launched new French-only ads in Quebec that feature Ignatieff talking about the province's place in Canada, the "knowledge economy" and his "vision of Canadian democracy."
Protecting the French language
Layton was also asked by a reporter why more would have to be done to protect the French language in Quebec, given the existence of Bill 101, the current provincial language law.
"We want the principles of the [Quebec] language charter to apply to federally regulated workplaces," Layton said.
"Here's the story," Layton said. "If you're working for a provincially regulated financial institution ... if your first language is French, you have the right to work in French, to have your contract be presented to you ... your instructions as to what you're supposed to do, in your first language so you can understand them.
"If across the corner you're working at La Banque Nationale …, you don't have those rights. It doesn't make sense."
Later in the day, Layton held a town hall in Toronto broadcast online and hammered home is party's key campaign issues, including health care and post-secondary education.
"This is a critical issue for our country because if we're not providing high-quality, affordable, accessible post-secondary education, then other countries are going to race on ahead of us," he said in response to an audience question.
"And if it starts to become increasingly the case that only those that have the means, the high-income folks, are able to take advantage of this, then we're taking a huge step backwards because there's all talent that gets missed."
Layton said he often hears from students who are forced to drop out before completing their studies because they can't afford post-secondary education.
The NDP leader also renewed his promise to address Canada's acute-care bed shortage and ensure pensions access for seniors.