A wise Quebecker of my acquaintance, who has had considerable experience in federal-provincial relations, maintains that we only run into trouble in this country when French- and English-speaking Canadians are talking about the same thing at the same time. By that standard, we should be heartened that the 25th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau's constitutional agreement with nine provinces - infamously known in Quebec as the night of the long knives - went unreported in English Canada earlier this month. As did the 15th anniversary (in 2002) of Brian Mulroney's attempt to secure the agreement of Quebec's National Assembly to that Constitution, the Meech Lake accord.
In fairness, my former colleague, who's known for his irreverence as much as for his political acuity, understands the shortcomings of "constructive non-engagement." But, as a veteran of the three-year Meech Lake ratification saga, he's not been hot to get our country back into the ditch.
Many of his fellow francophone federalists, on the other hand, are both frustrated and a bit angry at our unwillingness to engage. Acutely conscious of the continuing high levels of support for sovereignty and the prospect of a Parti Québécois victory in the next provincial election, they enthusiastically greeted Michael Ignatieff's musings about Quebec nationhood - musings that have set tongues wagging on both sides of the Ottawa River.
As the debate has progressed, Quebec federalists have been stunned by the desertion of past allies, which they attribute to a trauma brought on by previous constitutional failures. They've yet to understand that the rest of Canada may have made the bloody-minded calculation that if Quebeckers are to have another referendum, so be it, but that it's best not to fuel any fires before then.
For anyone who's been involved in the process, it would be hard to think of a more inopportune time to raise constitutional issues. No doubt Mr. Ignatieff's Quebec-based advisers told him that recognizing Quebec as a nation would be the winning path to Stornoway, and eventually to 24 Sussex Drive. But, surely other advisers should have recalled the zero-sum dynamic that's set off when the better a term such as "nation" or "distinct society" looks to one linguistic group, the worse it looks to the other.
Had Mr. Ignatieff been in Canada at the time, he would have seen how Jean Chrétien - before eventually working with Brian Mulroney to save Meech Lake - used opposition to the accord to de-stabilize John Turner and eventually replace him as leader of the Liberal Party. Now, Mr. Ignatieff's rivals are revelling as he swings in the wind, giving him the occasional nudge and in no hurry to help him climb down.
Outside Quebec, Mr. Ignatieff has done himself considerable damage by reinforcing the image of a gaffe-prone academic who's detached from Canada. Now, in full retreat, he has also alienated Quebeckers by stating (in an article on this page last week) that his support for the nation notion does not necessarily mean constitutional reform - and definitely does not mean any special status or powers.
The debate has also damaged Stéphane Dion. Mr. Dion has been taken off his game plan of focusing on the environment to erase memories in Quebec of past battles. More recently, he has back-pedalled on support for the term "nation" and now suggests that Quebec be "respected" as a "national group."
Only Bob Rae has come up with a formulation that can save the Liberal Party, and Canada, from the mess Mr. Ignatieff has created. In saying he does "not have a problem with the fact that many Québécois feel themselves part of a 'nation' in the sense of a community of interest affected by a shared history, language, culture and geography," he has removed the principal objections to the definitions advanced by his rivals. More important, he has come up with a responsible position that mirrors that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who's repeatedly stated he has no problem with Quebeckers calling their provincial legislature the National Assembly.
In an election campaign, Mr. Rae would be on an equal footing with the Conservatives, and he would have one advantage. In Quebec, he would be able to trumpet his support for recognizing that province as a distinct society in both the Meech and Charlottetown accords, as against Mr. Harper's opposition. Best of all, notwithstanding his statement that the constitutional file is always open, Mr. Rae's clarity on the question of resuming negotiations means that no one in the rest of Canada would have the slightest concern that he would start the process should he become prime minister.