Being equal, as Canadians, doesn't mean being the same

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

The ties that bind us together as Canadians are much stronger than the forces that divide us. Thanks to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians are united by an equality of citizenship.
It is the federal government's role to maintain our unity by working with other orders of government to ensure that all Canadians stand equal before the trials of life and that all Canadians benefit equally from life's opportunities.
The second tie that binds us together is the constitutional equality of all provinces and territories.
While all provinces must remain equal, not all provinces are the same. Quebec has a unique history. It entered the federation on the understanding that its distinguishing features would receive protection in the new federal government of Canada. Canadian unity ever since has required recognition of this understanding.
Quebeckers, moreover, have come to understand themselves as a nation, with a language, history, culture and territory that marks them out as a separate people. Quebec is a civic nation, not an ethnic nation. More than 5,000 nations are recognized as such in the world, but there are fewer than 200 states at the United Nations.
I'm opposed to special constitutional status for any province. To recognize Quebec as a nation within the fabric of Canada is not to make some new concession. Nor is it a prelude to further devolution of powers. Already our federation balances provincial autonomy and federal authority well. Since the 1960s, Quebec has enjoyed the freedom to opt out of some national programs to allow it to protect the identity of its people and to promote its economic and social development.
Canada gives Quebeckers a freedom of belonging that a separatist option would never allow. They love Canada because it allows them to be both proud Quebeckers and proud Canadians. Separatism forces Quebeckers to make a choice of allegiance they do not want to make. The enduring strength of Canadian identity is freedom: the freedom to choose the order and the intensity of our allegiance to our native land.
Even with this working balance, we need to face plain facts. The fact is that Quebec's National Assembly has not given its formal consent to the Constitution. The fact is that almost 25 years have passed since the patriation of the Constitution, and many Quebeckers continue to feel that their country does not fully include them. Support for sovereignty is as high as ever.
Last week, Quebec's Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoît Pelletier affirmed his government's position that Quebec is a nation. Mr. Pelletier was clear that, while the time is not right for pursuing constitutional reform, this is an issue that is not going away.
Creating the conditions to embark on another round of constitutional reform will no doubt take time. When the good faith is there, when the common understanding is there, when the political will is there, we must bring this unfinished business to a successful conclusion.
At the upcoming Liberal Convention, delegates will be asked to vote on a resolution approved by the Quebec wing of the party that calls on the party to recognize Quebec as a nation and to appoint a committee of experts to make recommendations to the next leader on ways of giving meaning to that concept. The resolution does not call for any action to be taken by a new Liberal government.
The Quebeckers who brought this resolution forward are federalist Liberals who have fought for Canadian unity. It was not the drafters' intent for the resolution to suggest a mandate to pursue constitutional reform. The resolution is intended to be a gesture of recognition and respect and the start, not the conclusion, of a dialogue amongst ourselves as Liberals.
Almost all of the leadership candidates, myself included, recognize that Quebec is a nation in the sociological sense. We all acknowledge that the time is not right to pursue constitutional recognition of that fact. A dispute among us on the convention floor would be a false one. Over the past few weeks, the candidates and their campaigns have been discussing how to ensure that the resolution is one that all of the candidates can support.
No matter the result of the vote on the resolution or the leadership contest, the next leader of the Liberal Party should not be afraid to engage in internal party dialogue, in whatever form, about how to make certain that federalism and the Liberal Party are relevant to Quebeckers.
I do not believe that the failures of the past should prevent a reasoned discussion about the future of our country. To lead is to create the conditions for a national discussion and to identify problems we must solve together.
Michael Ignatieff, MP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, is a candidate for the federal Liberal leadership.

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