LONDON — “Michael Ignatieff strode back into Canada bearing gilt-edged promises that he had kept a close watch on our political evolution during his decades on foreign soil and that he would be appropriately sensitive to our sociopolitical nuances. He then, by stating a position on Quebec as a nation, proceeded to break our single most important political taboo. It is as if a papal candidate had suddenly barged into a Catholic church and set the altar ablaze.”
So ran the lead editorial of one of Canada’s two national newspapers, the National Post, on the day after the blaze spread to the roof. When Ignatieff, a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party and therefore potentially a future prime minister, declared last June that he saw the mainly French-speaking province of Quebec as “a nation” within Canada, and was open to new negotiations to enshrine that concept in the constitution, he re-opened the wound that never really heals, and condemned the country to another constitutional crisis.
Last month, taking their lead from Ignatieff, the Quebec branch of the Liberal Party adopted a resolution calling for the party to recognize “the Quebec nation within Canada,” and to “officialize this historical and social reality.” Then the separatist Quebec party in the federal parliament, the Bloc Quebecois, seized on that to introduce a bill demanding “that this House recognize that Quebecers form a nation.”
The Bloc hoped the other parties would vote against the bill, thereby demonstrating their alleged hostility to French-speaking Quebecers and their aspirations, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper was too clever for them. On Wednesday, Nov. 22, he introduced a resolution declaring that Parliament “recognizes that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada,” and all the parties flocked to support it — even the Bloc Quebecois.
In one swift move Harper won support for his Conservative Party in Quebec in the next election, and boosted the chances that Ignatieff, the easiest candidate to beat, will win the leadership of the Liberal Party. However, he also raised the specter of Quebec separatism from its shallow grave.
Harper’s Conservatives, of course, insist that they have done no such thing. His Quebec lieutenant, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, in a performance that would have left Donald Rumsfeld envious, denied that the motion had any legal consequences: “We are not at the point of a constitutional demand. Has anyone seen a constitutional demand in the works? No, we haven’t seen one. Is it our intention to have one? No, there is no intention to have one.”
But Andre Boisclair, leader of Parti Quebecois, which spearheads the separatist movement within Quebec, took a very different view. The motion to recognize that Quebecers form a nation “will give us a powerful tool for the international recognition of a future sovereign Quebec. . . . I feel better equipped today to talk about sovereignty to Quebecers than I was before the motion.”
Since the “quiet revolution” of the 1960s delivered Quebec into the modern world politically, the issue of independence for Canada’s only French-majority province has never gone away for long. The separatist Parti Quebecois has been in power much of the time since then, and is favored in the opinion polls to return to power in the next provincial election. Twice it has held referendums on independence, and twice it has failed to get a “yes” vote, but it has promised another when the circumstances are right.
In practice, “when the circumstances are right” has meant when Francophone Quebecers are feeling alienated from English-speaking Canada. The first referendum on independence in 1980 was defeated 60-40, but after two failed attempts at constitutional reform the second referendum in 1995 came within a hair’s-breadth of saying “yes.” Canada has now almost certainly embarked, willy-nilly, on a third attempt at constitutional reform, regardless of how much the present government denies it. The sleeping dog has woken, and will have its day.
But a third attempt at finding a constitutional formula that will satisfy both nationalist Quebecois and the English-speaking majority in the other nine provinces is almost certainly doomed to failure for the same reasons as the first two: There is no such formula. So at the end of this road, very probably, lies a third referendum in a Quebec that is feeling rejected and alienated.
Prime Minister Harper bears a good deal of blame for this train-wreck with his too-clever resolution declaring the Quebecois to be a nation “within a united Canada,” but the true responsibility lies with Ignatieff, a Canadian-born academic and journalist who had lived abroad for 27 consecutive years before he arrived in Canada from Harvard University last year to offer the Liberal Party and the country his leadership.
The lesson that most Canadians (including most French-Canadians) had gleaned from the long and grueling ordeal of referendums and constitutional crises was that the country worked perfectly well in practice, but could not be made to work in theory — so stop obsessing about constitutional principles. But Ignatieff was absent for all that time, and he simply hadn’t grasped the lesson.
In the words of Ken Dryden, also at one point a Liberal leadership candidate, Ignatieff “bumped into a chair and woke the dog up.” But he will probably be long gone, back to Harvard or some other ivory tower, before the storm really hits Canada.
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