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Bouchard forces Charest into separatism debate

In his first day as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, Jean Charest was dragged into the national unity debate by separatist Premier Lucien Bouchard.

The feisty premier came out fighting Friday once it became official Charest, 39, former federal Conservative leader, will fight the separatist threat in his home province.

Charest said his priority is economic revival and job creation but Bouchard demanded a debate on attempts to keep mainly French Quebec within Canada.

"This economy has suffered for the last 20 years and has paid a very high price for this debate," Charest said.

"I'm not going to put the province in a position where we're going to be dependent on some sort of a constitutional amendment and put all our energies in that," he said.

By forcing discussion of the constitutional declaration to recognize Quebec's "unique character" while maintaining that all provinces are equal, Bouchard is hoping Charest's popularity will wane before a provincial election next year.

Calling the declaration, "pathetic" and "almost ridiculous," Bouchard is considering whether his government will hold a debate in the legislature or public hearings on the issue.

By raising the issue, Bouchard "clearly has an agenda focused on referendums and separation," Charest said, adding the declaration is a positive first step and a basis for discussion.

Chretien's Cuban visit reveals "complex' Castro

Prime Minister Jean Chretien says he found Cuban President Fidel Castro to be a "complex personality . . . and a very Communist person" during his two-day visit in Havana.

Chretien used the meeting with Castro to promote trade between Canada and Cuba and push for humanitarian reforms.

The trip "signaled the concern Canadians have for Cubans who are suffering under the increasingly pointless U.S. embargo," the Toronto Star said in an editorial.

Chretien had to cut his visit short to rush home for a controversial vote granting compensation to people who contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood transfusions between 1986 and 1990.

Names in the news

Ontario solicitor-general Bob Runciman resigned from the Conservative Cabinet after his government broke the law by identifying the mother of a young offender. The throne speech included the woman's name and said she thanked the government for "giving us back our son" through a boot-camp program.

Media baron John Bassett has died in Toronto at age 82. His colorful career included publishing the now-defunct Toronto Telegram and heading TV's Baton Broadcasting.

Quebec-born singer Celine Dion received Canada's top honor, the Order of Canada, on Friday to recognize her musical talents and charity work. A day earlier, Dion was named to the Order of Quebec.

Former federal Liberal organizer Pierre Corbeil was fined $34,500 after admitting to four counts of influence-peddling. Police said Corbeil tried to collect up to $10,000 from companies applying for federal job-creation grants.

Facts and figures

Canadian banks again edged up mortgage interest rates by up to .25 percent but there's no change in the Bank of Canada interest rate of 5 percent or the prime lending rate of 6.5 percent.

Canada's dollar is up slightly at 69.73 U.S. cents while a U.S. dollar returns $1.4341 Canadian before bank exchange fees.

Stock markets are lower, with the Toronto 300 Index at 7,702 points while Montreal is 3,853 points and Vancouver, 629 points.

Lotto 6-49: (Wednesday) 3, 17, 28, 30, 47 and 48; bonus 35. (April 25) 2, 8, 20, 28, 39 and 40; bonus 21.

Regional briefs

Unhappy fishery workers took over a federal tax-processing center for two days in Newfoundland, forcing 700 workers to stay home and keeping last-minute tax filers away. Jobless fishermen and plant workers want the federal government to replace a financial aid program due to expire this summer.

Simon Fraser University in British Columbia has offered to pay the outstanding $25,000 legal bill of swimming coach Liam Donnelly who was wrongly fired, then rehired. The improper handling of a false sexual harassment complaint against the coach cost university President John Stubbs his job.

Several thousand unionists filled a downtown St. Catharines, Ontario, park Friday for a Day of Action to protest restraint measures of the provincial government. Some workplaces were closed in the protest that has been held in other Ontario cities in the past year.

Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon says the easy election of Conservative Myrna Driedger in a Winnipeg by-election to fill a legislature vacancy is a sign his government pleases the people. The win by Driedger, 46, a former nurse and head of Child Find Manitoba, gives the Conservatives 31 of the legislature's 57 seats.

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