Premier Rene Levesque of Quebec, whose separatist government is seeking independence for the French-speaking province, walked out of a Canadian economic summit meeting yesterday charging that it was "a pre-election extravaganza" staged by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Levesque accused the Trudeau government of "scandalous" mismanagement and "political sabotage." Quebec, he said, disassociated itself from a communique on medium-term economic strategy issued at the end of the three-day conference involving Trudeau and the premiers of Canada's 10 provinces.
Trudeau immediately accused Levesque of wanting "to break up Canada" and said Levesque's "whole game plan is to prove that federalism doesn't work."
The Canadian leader said "the walkout would contribute to the uncertainties which are hidering the Canadian economy."
Levesque's move eclipsed the summit and focused attention on growing public concern about the future of the Canadian federation.
The two men are reported to have clashed at a private dinner the previous night. Those present said Trudeau "totally blew his cool" in a display of rage and temper. Yesterday's walk-out by Levesque followed an acrimonious exchange between the Quebec leader and a member of Trudeau's Cabinet, which was carried live on national television.
In the course of the debate Levesque charged that the federal government deliberately denied Quebec $64 million in federal construction funds for low-income housing last year.
Urban Affairs Minister Andre Ouelette, in a sharp attack on Levesque and his "dictatorial views" said that Levesque's government was responsible for the incident. He said the Quebec housing authority was "a white elephant moving at a snail's pace."
"Look at your own house and what is wrong there," the minister said acidly.
Following the exchange, Trudeau backed up Oulette. At a news conference Trudeau said that his minister "was justified" in responding to Levesque and that the federal government had offered $200 million in construction funds but that only $40 million were used by Quebec "due to their delays."
After his walkout, Levesque held a news conference at which he said he would not tolerate "insulting remarks about the Quebec delegation," made by Ouelette.
He said the Quebec delegation "took this whole thing bloody seriously," anticipating some concrete results from the summit.
After two days of meetings, Levesque said he came to the conclusion that "this [conference] is purely and simply a pre-election ploy" and that Trudeau's Liberal Party government was trying to "camouflage" its economic failures.
Both separatists and federal spokesmen traded charges of electioneering. Levesque has vowed to hold a referendum on independence in Quebec next year. It is widely assumed that Trudeau will call general elections later this year and that he will make the question of Canadian unity the corner stone of his campaign.
While attacking the federal government, Levesque went out of his way to court the premiers of the nine English-speaking provinces. It was clearly an effort to win support and under which an independent Quebec would be in an economic association with the rest of Canada.
But Levesque also used the forum to assert that wide disparities in interest and approach of Canadian provinces were demonstrated at the conference and that its results show that "the present system is not adequate" to cope with problems.
The final communique was somewhat vague and in Trudeau's words "pretty much of a motherhood agreement." It stressed the need to combat inflation and high unemployment.
Only two concrete joint projects to stimulate the economy - one in New-foundland and one in Saskatchewan - were agreed upon. Levesque said it was a "cosmetic job" but that it was so vague that "nobody could be against it."
Trudeau saw the setting of broad economic guidelines as a major effort in creating and "establishing confidence in the future of Canada."