par Graeme Hamilton
MONTREAL - Jean Charest, the Quebec Premier, praised Prime Minister Stephen Harper yesterday for recognizing "the obvious fact" that Quebec is a nation and said the Conservative motion before the House of Commons offers a "historic opportunity to advance the interests of the Quebec people."
But for a lot of Quebecers, it is going to take a little more persuading. The Parti Quebecois critic dismissed Mr. Harper's motion as empty of any concrete gains for Quebec. And Mr. Charest was immediately forced to defend himself against the charge he was "abdicating" his responsibilities by championing a motion that is merely symbolic.
What is this going to mean for "the tax return, the standard of living" of the average Quebecer, he was asked by a reporter.
Mr. Charest made clear that he does not see Mr. Harper's gambit as a prelude to another round of constitutional talks.
"I have to reiterate that at this moment, there is no question, either in Quebec or anywhere in Canada, of reopening or restarting a new round of constitutional negotiations," Mr. Charest said. "We are not there."
But he added that there are precedents for the courts to take into account motions such as the one tabled by the Conservatives. "Yes, it changes our position. It changes the way our laws are interpreted. It changes the way Quebecers will see their future, because this recognition of the nation we are is a way for us to occupy all the space that belongs to us, in Canada and in the world. In my opinion, it is a very significant gesture."
He called on the separatist Bloc Quebecois to set aside partisan interests and vote in favour of the motion.
"I think that Mr. [Gilles] Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois are faced with their responsibility today and that they must not miss this historic opportunity to advance the interests of the Quebec people," he said.
Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leadership contender who has been criticized for promoting the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a nation within Canada, felt vindicated by Mr. Harper's move.
"What matters is that our party, the Liberal party, has launched a fundamental debate for Quebecers, for francophones, for anglophones, for all Canadians across the country on the future of Quebec within Canada. That is what is positive. That is what is so great," he told a Radio-Canada reporter.
"I spent three months being attacked in the English press because I dared to raise this question, so today I am proud of having stuck to my guns despite the criticism of certain journalists."
Stephane Dion, a Quebec MP and a rival leadership candidate, said he can live with Mr. Harper's motion. But he said it would be wrong to expect the motion to have much impact on national unity.
"I don't think it's through symbolic politics like this. I don't think its through semantic debates that we will convince more and more Quebecers to be proud Canadians and stop them from wanting to give up Canada," he said in an interview. "The way to do it is to put the burden of proof on the shoulders of the separatist leaders."
The motion carries the risk that separatists will use it to try to persuade Quebecers they need more than mere cosmetic change, he added.
"Overall, the key point is to convince Quebecers that nothing prevents them from succeeding in Canada. Because otherwise you know what will happen? Somebody will request the next step. Is it the Constitution? Is it to transfer powers on the grounds that they are a nation? I am sure that is what the separatists will do right away."
Liberal MP Jean Lapierre, who last month urged Liberals to adopt a contentious motion recognizing Quebec as a nation, had rare praise for Mr. Harper yesterday.
"Obviously, it removes a thorn from our side," he told reporters in Ottawa. "I am very proud of the speech by Mr. Harper, which frankly doesn't happen very often."
STEPHEN HARPER - Once again, the leader of the Bloc and his separatist friends are not concerned with defining who Quebecers are but rather what they want them to become, a separate country. The separatists do not need the Parliament of Canada to define what is meant by the sociological termination. My preference has been well known. I believe that this is not the job of the federal Parliament. It is the job of the legislature of Quebec, but the Bloc Quebecois has asked us to define this and perhaps that is a good thing, because it reminds us that all Canadians have a say in the future of this country. Having been asked by the Bloc to define the Quebecois, we must take a position. Our position is clear. Do the Quebecois form a nation within Canada? The answer is yes. Do the Quebecois form an independent nation? The answer is no, and the answer will always be no, because Quebecers of all political persuasions, from Cartier and Laurier to Mulroney and Trudeau, have led this country, and millions like them of all political persuasions have helped to build it. With their English- and French-speaking fellow citizens, and people drawn from all nationalities of this earth, they have been part of making this country what it is, the greatest country in the world.
BILL GRAHAM - The Bloc is committed to the breaking up of Canada and whatever respect we might have toward individual members on this point, we must clearly and fundamentally disagree and fundamentally fight for the rights of Canada and the whole of Canada. How could we ever support a motion on Quebec by a party that has zero commitment to Canada, which is blind to the greatness available for Quebecers within Canada, a country in which they are at home from coast to coast to coast because we have sought to make them at home, because it is their home? It is not just Quebecers within Quebec, because a Quebecer is a Canadian, in British Columbia or in St. John's, and they are equally Canadian and equally welcome in that community which is part of their community and belongs to them. We think of those Quebecers, when we talk of our country, who fought for Canada in the past, and we think of those who are risking their lives in Afghanistan and around the world for Canada and for a better world for all Canadians and a better world for everybody in this world. They are risking their lives for that principle. We cannot let them down.
JACK LAYTON - Our party has been very proud to stand in support of the policy that supports the concept of the national character of Quebecers, and we will continue to do so. Now is the time for us to build on this concept, to show all Quebecers they are respected in the heart of the greatest country in the world, a country that we all are attempting to build to be a model for the entire world. By showing there is a place for Quebecers here, we can send a strong signal about how a nation like Canada ... can work in all of its diversity to accomplish the goals everyone in the world shares.
GILLES DUCEPPE - Nations have rights, like that of directing its own development. The debate on the future of Quebec presents itself as follows: There are those who think Quebec is better off developing and growing by staying in Canada -- and I respect their opinion -- and there are those who think like I do, that sovereignty will allow Quebec to develop fully. ... It's not up to the Prime Minister to decide what Quebecers will choose as an option. It's for Quebecers, according to the rules of the National Assembly, to decide their future. I repeat, Quebecers are a nation not as a condition of staying in a supposedly unified Canada; they form a nation, not as a condition of becoming a country. Those are the two options. Both are respectable.
Charest champions 'significant gesture'
PQ dismisses PM's motion