PM calls Quebec 'a nation'
Harper's bold gambit recognizes Quebec, but within the framework of 'a united Canada'
Nov. 23, 2006. 09:09 AM
SUSAN DELACOURT AND TONDA MACCHARLES
OTTAWA—Prime Minister Stephen Harper is asking the House of Commons to declare that Quebec is a nation — "within a united Canada" — and in so doing, has blazed a trail for the opposition Liberals to get out of their own controversy over this hot-button, national-unity issue.
With just four words, Harper has simultaneously made history and potential peace in Liberal ranks.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest called it a significant moment for the country.
Prompted by the separatist Bloc Québécois's intent to have the Commons vote on whether Quebec is a nation, Harper made a surprise statement in the House yesterday afternoon.
He said Parliament wouldn't be put into a trap by the sovereignists making this vow:
"With the support of the government and with the support of our party, I will be putting on the notice paper later today the following motion: `That, this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.'"
The Prime Minister went on to declare: "Having been asked by the Bloc to define the Québécois, we must take a position. Our position is clear. Do the Québécois form a nation within Canada? The answer is yes. Do the Québécois form an independent nation? The answer is no, and the answer will always be no, because Quebecers of all political persuasions ... have led this country, and millions like them of all political persuasions have helped to build it."
Harper's resolution will help the opposition Liberals defuse a controversy that has dogged its leadership campaign ever since the Quebec wing of the party called for recognition of Quebec as a nation to be "officialized."
After front-runner Michael Ignatieff embraced the resolution, his opponents accused him of threatening to reopen the Constitution. He denied this, but the party has been unsuccessfully trying to find a way to avoid a showdown on the issue at next week's leadership convention.
Liberals, especially Ignatieff, were relieved. "I think it's a good day for Canada," Ignatieff said.
Yet another Liberal leadership candidate, Stéphane Dion, was actually called by Harper's office Tuesday night to sound him out on the proposal. He is also happy, saying it reflects the compromise he'd floated privately with his opponents.
"I have no problem with this," said Dion, also a former political scientist and intergovernmental affairs minister who had been viewed as the most staunch opponent of recognizing Quebec as a nation.
Now, for the first time, Canada's top legislature will recognize Quebec's status as a nation, but with the significant proviso: within Canada.
It's another step on a long, historic road littered with other descriptions of Quebec's unique character — "distinct society" being the most famous, and controversial.
Liberals, meanwhile, have four words — "within a united Canada" — that could defuse a looming debate on Quebec's "nation" status at next week's leadership convention in Montreal.
It's not a total outbreak of peace, however. Some of Harper's own Conservative MPs have reservations. "I'm really uncomfortable with this," said one, who predicted several MPs will likely abstain next week when it comes time to vote. Nor is it clear that it will satisfy "soft" sovereignists in Quebec. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe warned that Quebecers would always see themselves as a nation "without conditions."
But on the Liberal-Tory divide, Harper's move was a bombshell and an echo of his past role as inspiration and author of the foundation for the famous Clarity Act — a law setting out terms for negotiating Quebec separation — adopted almost wholesale by Jean Chrétien's Liberals in the wake of the 1995 referendum. In fact, once again, Harper has given the Liberals a strategy toward handling Quebec separatism, one they couldn't seem to find themselves.