Can we back-burner the nation thing?

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

Here's the problem that Michael Ignatieff has created: The mere thought of what he is proposing makes most of us feel sick, even though we know he's right.
Over the past few weeks, Mr. Ignatieff's campaign proposal to constitutionally recognize Quebec as a nation has grown to become The Thing: the single issue that could determine the outcome of the Liberal leadership race and, if Mr. Ignatieff wins that race, dominate the next federal election campaign.

The Quebec wing of the Liberal Party has recommended that the party appoint a task force - and what could be more Liberal than that? - to recommend how the new leader could “officialize” (welcome to the English language, new word) the “historical and social reality” of “the Quebec nation within Canada.”
Alive to the possibility that the issue could split the convention and the party, all sides are at work on a compromise.

And Mr. Ignatieff's people are reminding anyone who will listen that he is only proposing a new round of constitutional talks if the federalist equivalent of “winning conditions” are in place.

So there are ways for the party to back-burner this issue. (Is “back-burner” any worse that “officialize”?) Still, The Thing is out there now, and many a tree will be sacrificed before it goes away.

Mr. Ignatieff is absolutely correct: Canada is a country that embraces within it the francophone nation of Quebec. If nation means anything, it surely means a people self-identifying as bound together by history, culture, language and geography. English Canada never gelled in that way, which makes Quebec a nation within a country. It would be nice if we could find a way to recognize this in our Constitution.

But we can't, because there are too many Canadians outside Quebec, and even some within it, who are not prepared to grant that province extraordinary powers to safeguard its culture - not when Alberta has demands of its own, and Newfoundland, and even Ontario.

So the furthest most of us can go, which is where the other Liberal leadership candidates have gone, is to say: “Of course Quebec is a nation, but there's nothing we can do about it,” and move on. But that risks discrediting federalists in Quebec, which could lead to a victory for separatist forces in the next election and another referendum on sovereignty.

And this is where we get to the sick-to-the-stomach part. Federalists arguing in favour of constitutional reform or sovereigntists scheming over a future referendum fail to consider the policy oxygen they consume.

There are only so many issues that can be considered in the public arena. Introduce constitutional reform, in any guise, and most other issues are forced to abandon that arena. Think of all the things that didn't get done during the years of Meech Lake and Charlottetown. Think of how much time and energy the 1995 referendum and the subsequent Clarity Act consumed. Think of what it will be like going through the negotiations on entrenching the French nation in the Constitution, and the referendum to ratify any agreement.

You want action on the environment? You believe Canada needs to reorient its trade policies? You think Quebec risks falling behind the rest of North America in productivity and living standards?

We can talk about these things, or we can wrangle over the Constitution. It's either/or. There's no room for both.
There are more than a million immigrants arriving in Canada every four years. That's a city the size of Toronto each decade. They really don't care whether Quebec is a nation. In fact, they're not all that excited about any of the parochial grievances of our tedious past. They are thinking about the future, and the rest of us should be thinking the way they think.

Instead, we're going to fight it out over Quebec's place in Canada once again, even though the very thought of it makes you want to reach for the Maalox.

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