MONTREAL - The task of Liberals at this week's leadership convention will be to keep their evident divisions over this Québécois or Quebeckers or Quebec as a “nation” business as camouflaged as possible.
The task of Conservatives in the West, Ontario and Atlantic Canada will be to explain this “nation” business as best they can, which means selling the unfathomable and unwanted to the unwilling.
The task for secessionists will be to enjoy the ensuing agony, once they get over their temporary discomfort of having voted for a motion that acknowledged the unity of Canada, for they emerged from the general confusion as undisputed political winners.
Not perhaps in the short term. But as this “nation” business plays itself out - with the rest of Canada surly, federalists unable to define what they mean, aboriginals insisting they get whatever is on offer, and the word “nation” being used increasingly in a political sense by the Quebec government and, of course, the secessionists - the Prime Minister's sudden virage into the existential will have demonstrated again that Canadian unity is best found in arrangements and usually strained by abstractions.
The Bloc Québécois began the whole affair with its proposed parliamentary motion. The Bloc plays this kind of game with regularity, its tactics being to embarrass federalism, its strategy being to break up Canada.
There was nothing new about this latest Bloc divertissement, except for its timing - just before the Liberal convention at which, courtesy of the party's Quebec wing and the aspirations of one candidate, Michael Ignatieff, the party seemed headed for acrimonious division over the “nation” business.
Here was a chance to embarrass the Liberals, score a few headlines in Quebec and perhaps disorient the Conservatives, who, through the years, had moved from “one nation” to “ deux nations” to “distinct society” in search of that elusive coherence on how they saw Quebec in Canada.
No one, given Stephen Harper's past pronouncements and extensive written ruminations on the Quebec/Canada relationship, would have guessed that he would announce what he did. His declaration that the “Québécois” formed a nation within Canada, therefore, became one of the most astonishing changes of position in Canadian political history, a change made with almost no consultation or warning.
He could have done what prudence dictated, the issue being so latently volatile, and sloughed off the Bloc motion as something akin to a late-night film seen many times before and useful only to put oneself back to sleep.
Instead, he elevated the issue to national prominence, secured a crushing parliamentary majority, lost a cabinet minister, split the Liberals, and flew off to a NATO summit in Latvia, confident of having scored a tactical victory whose long-term consequences will be neutral if the resolution is largely forgotten.
Most Liberal MPs, caught unawares by the Prime Minister's virage and scared of their own divisions, huddled behind the motion. But even their self-preservation instincts could not mask how many dissenters appeared, including three leadership candidates - Joe Volpe, Ken Dryden and Gerard Kennedy.
Two others, Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion, mumbled their consent but obviously wished that the whole issue would disappear, their wish grounded in the wisdom of having been around Canadian politics longer than the other candidates. They had been schooled in the dangers of existentialism, the temptations of which lure intellectuals and provincial politicians. The clarity these sorts of politicians seek is found in the textbooks of theory rather than the intricacies of Canadian politics.
Those within the Liberal Party who wished to inflict this issue on their colleagues have now withdrawn their formal motion, but the whole “nation” business will nonetheless hang over the convention. One “serious” candidate, Mr. Kennedy, opposes the “nation” idea and might gain supporters outside Quebec for having done so.
Mr. Kennedy will learn in due course that existentialism always takes prisoners. By his refusal to mumble and fudge, he will be remembered in a province whose motto is “ Je me souviens” as having been hostile to Quebec, thereby ending whatever hopes he might have harboured for eventually leading his party.