par Joan Bryden, Canadian Press
Not even supporters of Liberal leadership frontrunner Michael Ignatieff agree what his proposal to recognize Quebec as a nation would mean.
Reaction is all over the map: some Ignatieff supporters express outright opposition, some cautiously endorse it, and others enthusiastically welcome it as a first step toward recognizing every province as a nation. Their conflicting views are prompting more doubts about the wisdom of raising the idea in the first place.
"In British Columbia, people recognize the (linguistic) duality of Canada," Victoria MP Keith Martin, an Ignatieff supporter, said in an interview Tuesday.
"But they recognize one Canada, one nation, one country."
Martin urged Liberals to focus on issues that are common priorities for Quebecers and other Canadians, like health care, rather than get caught up in a potentially divisive debate over "nomenclature."
At the other extreme, Newfoundland MP Gerry Byrne, another Ignatieff supporter, said recognizing Quebec as a nation is no big deal. He said Acadians and aboriginal peoples are routinely called nations, so why not a province? Indeed, why not his own province?
"We are a nation of nations so I don't really see this as a thin edge of the wedge issue," Byrne said in an interview.
He noted that Newfoundland and Labrador "was actually a nation until 1949" when it joined Canada. And he wouldn't rule out recognizing Ontario or other provinces as nations as well.
But Byrne's use of the word nation to describe Newfoundland's past status as a separate country is precisely the kind of confusion the word engenders and which worries other Liberals.
Ignatieff points out the term does not imply a separate state. In his platform, Ignatieff contends that Quebecers' language, history, culture and territory "marks them out as a separate people" who should be recognized as a nation. He also says that recognition, as well as the recognition of aboriginal first nations, should eventually be enshrined in the Constitution.
Over the weekend, the Quebec wing of the party, which is dominated by Ignatieff supporters, passed a resolution calling for the recognition of Quebec as nation.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe and other prominent separatists have since said such recognition must be backed up by more powers for the province or it will be dismissed as meaningless symbolism.
But Ignatieff himself has ruled out any change in the division of powers and some of his supporters clearly wouldn't be comfortable with anything more than a strictly symbolic gesture.
Marc Lalonde, fomer Quebec Liberal kingpin during the Pierre Trudeau era, said he has no qualms about the proposal, "provided that it's clear what you mean by nation."
"Spain has recognized Catalonia as a nation and Spain has not blown up," said Lalonde, who supports Ignatieff.
Nova Scotia MP Robert Thibault, another Ignatieff fan, said recognition of nationhood "doesn't mean special status," although he conceded it will probably be hard to explain to Canadians. Nevertheless, he said he's not sure if he'll support the Quebec wing's resolution when it is put to a vote during the party's national leadership convention in December.
The potential for the debate to divide Quebec Liberals against those from other parts of the country worries Stephane Dion, the lone Quebec candidate. While he personally has no problem recognizing Quebec as a nation, Dion thinks the debate over constitutional recognition is fraught with unnecessary risk.
"I don't want this disagreement to be interpreted as a rejection of Quebec by other Canadians. . . or a rejection by our party of the Quebec wing of our party," Dion said.
However, the Ignatieff team is hoping their candidate's appeal in Quebec will convince Liberals elsewhere that he's the one who can win the province and, hence, the next election. His advisers have begun to talk openly about nabbing delegates from third-place contender Gerard Kennedy after the first ballot on Dec. 2.
But that drew an angry retort Tuesday from one senior Kennedy supporter.
Senator Terry Mercer said Ignatieff is "accident prone" and his many gaffes have caused his campaign to stall.
The proposal to recognize Quebec as a nation is "an attempt to jump start it but it won't work because there've been too many stumbles," Mercer said in an interview.
If anything, Mercer said Ignatieff delegates are coming over to Kennedy because they now believe Ignatieff represents too big a risk.