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MONTREAL — A controversy over a star Quebec Green candidate’s comments about his unabashed support for sovereignty continued to bog down party leader Elizabeth May on the campaign trail Friday.

Pierre Nantel, arguably the party’s best-known candidate in Quebec, told Radio-Canada on Thursday that he was indeed an avowed sovereigntist, one day after May said he wasn’t.

Nantel said the party brass, including May, were aware of his position when he joined, adding he hoped his leader could clarify the situation.

“Of course I’m a sovereigntist, everyone knows, and that’s always been the case,” Nantel told Radio-Canada.

May sought to put an end to the controversy Friday, saying that Nantel would remain a Green Party member and candidate.

“We’re fine with where he stands and fits,” May told The Canadian Press. “He’s not an unknown quantity to me, we’ve worked together in Parliament for eight years.”

May said that Nantel has never done anything to suggest he’s a separatist during his time as an MP, adding she makes a distinction between a sovereigntist and someone actively fighting for Quebec’s separation from Canada.

“I make a distinction, and some others do as well,” May said. “He never expressed an intention, or in any public way suggested, he wanted to see the breakup of Canada, period, full stop.”

At her campaign launch Wednesday, May initially said he wasn’t a separatist, calling him as “a strong Quebecer within the context of Canada” and added they wouldn’t endorse a candidate advocating for the breakup of the country.

“Yes I’m aware of his views and it doesn’t change his status as a Green Party candidate,” May said.

The Green Party added in a statement it is a federalist party and stands for national unity but allows sovereigntists and former sovereigntists to join, as other parties do. If they do join, they do so knowing that and focusing on the fight against climate change.

The controversy began Tuesday when Nantel discussed sovereignty during an interview with QUB radio host Benoit Dutrizac about Quebec’s secularism bill. Nantel told Radio-Canada it was perhaps a mistake to mention sovereignty during that interview when he was appearing as a representative of the Greens.

While he voted in favour of independence during the referendum in 1995, Nantel said he has never promoted sovereignty since being elected as an MP in 2011, and he vowed to maintain that stance.

He added in the Radio-Canada interview the Greens were very open to having sovereigntists in their ranks.

“Obviously, Ms. May is very enthusiastic about receiving sovereigntists,” Nantel said. “However, she does not want us to praise sovereignty in the House of Commons. I understand this and I agree with it, and I’ve never done it.”

Nantel served nearly two full terms for the New Democrats before being expelled after it became known he was courting at least one other party. He joined the Greens a few days later to seek re-election in the riding of Longueuil-Saint-Hubert, south of Montreal.

In a statement on the Green Party website, Nantel echoed that fighting climate change is his main objective in seeking re-election.

“I am not asking federalists or sovereigntists, or supporters of the Liberals, Conservatives, Bloc or NDP, to throw away their beliefs,” Nantel said. “I am inviting Quebecers to put aside their differences for this election — in 2019 — so we can work together for our common future and for our common survival.”

Polling suggests sovereignty remains low on Quebecers’ priorities, and McGill University political science professor Daniel Beland said it’s not uncommon to see people shifting political allegiances.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau appeared in Nantel’s riding Friday with his own star candidate — Rejean Hebert, a former Parti Quebecois health minister. The Conservative Party meanwhile has tapped former Bloc Quebecois leader Michel Gauthier, who has renounced sovereignty, to help the party in Quebec.

But the conflicting claims between Nantel and May speaks to the Green Party’s own internal issues and its ability to properly vet candidates. He said the issue has emerged as a source of distraction for the party early on.

“It’s not about sovereignty per se, it’s about how they select their candidates and who is telling the truth about what happened,” said Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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