Elizabeth Thompson, The Montreal Gazette - Premier Jean Charest campaigns from town to town, vaunting that Quebec has now been recognized as a nation, citing it as an example of things he has obtained for Quebec from the federal government.
But Mr. Charest may not have got exactly what he thinks he did when MPs endorsed a motion by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in November, recognizing that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.
Mr. Harper himself has been vague as to what exactly his motion means -- refusing to give a clear definition for the word "Quebecois" or to explain why he used the term Quebecois in the English version of the resolution, rather than the usual Quebecer. He has scrupulously referred to "Quebecois" rather than "Quebecer" in English in his speeches as well.
In 1995, in the aftermath of a razor-thin federalist win in Quebec's sovereignty referendum, Mr. Harper made it very clear that in his mind only those of French Canadian ancestry qualify as Quebecois and that recognizing the Quebecois as a people -- a key element of recognition as a nation -- could set the stage for the partition of Quebec in the event of a vote in favour of sovereignty.
"Obviously given the ethnic and sociocultural make-up of modern Quebec society, only the pure laine Quebecois could arguably be considered a people," Mr. Harper, who was then the Reform Party MP for Calgary West, told the House of Commons on Dec. 11, 1995, during a debate on Quebec's right to self-determination.
"While they constitute a majority of the Quebec population, they do not constitute a majority in each region of Quebec. This produces a curious result, that if the Quebecois pure laine are a people and if they have a right to secede, they could not claim the right to territorial integrity."
Mr. Harper also questioned if Quebecers could be considered a people under international law, and argued they had no right to self-determination.
Mr. Harper's office did not respond to a question as to whether the prime minister stands by his 1995 statement. But nothing he has said publicly since introducing the motion contradicts that 1995 statement.
Calling into question the territorial integrity of Quebec is another term for partition -- a concept that could see Quebec carved up in the event of a Yes vote, with some areas becoming part of the new country of Quebec and others remaining part of Canada. It is a concept that is often condemned by Quebec politicians.
However, it is also a concept that the Gazette has learned the federal government researched carefully in the months following the 1995 referendum. Mr. Harper's quote, along with those of many other prominent Canadians and Quebecers, is included in a collection of quotes on the subject contained in Privy Council documents on the referendum, which were recently released under the Access to Information Act. At the time the quotes were gathered by Privy Council officials, Liberal leader Stephane Dion was president of the Privy Council and Intergovernmental Affairs minister.
Mr. Harper's statement in the Commons came when Mr. Charest was still a federal politician, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and MP for the Eastern Townships riding of Sherbrooke. There is no indication in Hansard whether Mr. Charest was in the House when Mr. Harper made the remarks.
The Privy Council documents also contain quotes from Mr. Charest in which he suggests partition would be on the table should Quebec vote for sovereignty.
Speaking to reporters Sunday in Roberval, Mr. Charest said his interpretation of Mr. Harper's motion adopted by Parliament in November is an inclusive one that advances Quebec.
"It is certainly a very important step in the recognition of our identity and it's a very important step in recognizing what Quebec and Canada is about as a country."