par CHRISTOPHER MASON
Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed Wednesday that Quebecers be recognized as a nation within Canada, injecting himself into a growing debate over how to distinguish the relationship between the French-speaking province and the rest of the predominantly English-speaking country.
The surprise motion by Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party hinges on a battle between separatist and federalist politicians over four words, ''within a united Canada.''
On Tuesday the separatist Bloc Quebecois announced plans to introduce a motion on Thursday in the House of Commons that would recognize Quebec as a nation.
Mr. Harper tried to pre-empt that motion by introducing a measure of his own, with the same wording but adding ''within a united Canada'' at the end. The leaders of both federalist parties in opposition, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, support Mr. Harper's proposal.
Mr. Harper said those four words were meant to prevent separatists from using the motion to promote their cause.
''Do Quebecers form a nation within a united Canada? The answer is yes,'' he said in the House of Commons. ''Do the Quebecois form an independent nation? The answer is no, and always will be no.''
Mr. Harper said the issue of Quebec nationhood should be left to the provincial government but argued that the Bloc Quebecois had forced the central government to weigh in.
The prime minister is trying to position his Conservative Party as the federalist alternative in Quebec as his minority government pushes for a majority in the next election, which could come as early as the spring.
The debate over nationhood largely dates back to Quebec's refusal to sign the Canadian Constitution in 1982. Since then there have been two failed attempts to amend the document to the province's liking.
Canadian politicians have typically been wary of discussing Quebec's role within Canada because of the tenuous stability that has been established in the province since the last referendum on separation was narrowly defeated in 1995. Since then a federalist Liberal provincial premier, Jean Charest, has been elected.
But an election could return the separatist Parti Quebecois to power, and the party has pledged to hold another referendum if it wins.
Critics say that the concept of recognizing Quebec as a nation -- in one sense, a separate people though not an independent state -- may have short-term benefits for federalist politicians but that separatists in Quebec will use the distinction to push for increased recognition of Quebec as a state that is separate from the rest of Canada.
''Harper will rue the day he went down this road,'' said Michael Behiels, a historian at the University of Ottawa. ''The Bloc Quebecois will exploit this to no end.''
During its 13 years in power, until January of this year, the Liberal Party successfully positioned itself as the alternative for federalist voters in Quebec who did not want to support the Bloc Quebecois.
Mr. Harper is trying to fill that role because the Liberal Party was weakened by its election loss and the resignation of its leader, Paul Martin.
The debate over Quebec nationhood could reach a crucial point when the Liberal Party votes for a new leader on Dec. 2.
Michael Ignatieff, the front-runner, is the only candidate supporting a party resolution to recognize ''the Quebec nation within Canada.'' He has cited Quebec's language, history, culture and territory.
His opponents argue that re-opening the debate only provides a venue for separatist leaders.