TORONTO — Canada's two largest provinces are leading the fight on climate change and are key to Canada's future economic development, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said in a historic speech to the Ontario legislature Monday.

"When Ontario's economy is strong, all of Canada benefits," Couillard told the Ontario lawmakers. "And when Quebec and Ontario work together to forge a strong economy, when they display imagination and dare to go even further, then everything becomes possible."

Quebec and Ontario account for more than 60 per cent of Canada's population and almost 60 per cent of its gross domestic product, he said.

"We are natural allies," said Couillard. "Central Canada is an economic force. It is a political force, and it is a force to be reckoned with for ensuring national prosperity."

Speaking in both English and French, Couillard gave a lengthy history of the relations between Quebec and Ontario, and said previous premiers Jean Lesage and John Robarts fought to increase the role of the provinces in the federation.

"We must reaffirm, as did Robarts and Lesage in the 1960s, that rather than a unitary state, our country is a federation where differences are respected," he said. "This is at the very core of our collective success to date. This is what will be the backbone of our future, and one of the building blocks of the prosperity we all want to leave to our children."

The last premier from outside the province to address the Ontario legislature was Lesage in 1964. Couillard said a prediction in Lesage's speech that government relations in Canada would go from vertical, or federal-to-provincial, to horizontal, or province-to province, has come true.

"This vision has been realized," Couillard said to cheers from all sides of the legislature and the packed public galleries. Former prime minister John Turner and former NDP premier and one-time Liberal leader Bob Rae were among the dignitaries attending the Couillard speech.

Couillard called Premier Kathleen Wynne's plan to join a cap-and-trade system under the Western Climate Initiative with Quebec "excellent news," and said Quebec expected to generate $3 billion by 2020 through its carbon market auctions.

"What I want to emphasize here is that putting a price on carbon is a logical choice," said Couillard. "Increasingly adopted here and abroad, it is also a choice that will yield concrete results."

Ontario, Quebec and California will create the largest carbon market in North America and "have good reasons to hope that others will follow suit," added Couillard.

The two premiers have banded together to press Prime Minister Stephen Harper to take more action to deal with climate change, and have expressed the same environmental concerns about the proposed Energy East pipeline project.

"Ontario and Quebec are working together to build a stronger central Canada, and thereby a stronger Canada," Wynne said in her official response to Couillard.

Couillard also said co-operation between the two Liberal governments is generating "promising leads" on expanding inter-provincial trade and growing the economy, and said Quebec wants strong relations with all provinces.

"The government I lead firmly believes that Quebec progresses when it seeks to unite rather than divide," he said. "When it participates rather than excluding itself. Above all, when it builds bridges with its partners in the federation rather than putting up walls."

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Keith Leslie, The Canadian Press

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