What Quebecers really want, the comedian Yvon Deschamps used to say, is "an independent Quebec in a strong Canada." That weary old joke sprang irrepressibly to mind yesterday when Prime Minister Stephen Harper suddenly grasped the nettle of Quebec nationhood.
Harper announced that he and his governing Conservatives will ask the House of Commons to vote on a motion to "recognize that Quebecers constitute a nation within a united Canada."
This is a considerable gamble. Harper - and everyone who puts the emphasis on the last word of Deschamps's quip - can only hope that his move will put this issue to rest.
For weeks, Harper has watched the Liberal leadership candidates writhe around trying to decide: "Is Quebec a nation?" But the question has been wrapping its bony fingers around the neck of his own party's Quebec aspirations, too, and even Conservative solidarity. It would have been interesting to listen in on his caucus meeting before yesterday's announcement.
The answer to the question matters, or not, legally and constitutionally and emotionally. The evidence suggests that francophone Quebecers, in particular, are in little doubt that they do constitute a nation, as they understand the term. Our own view in this space has been that while francophones in all parts of Canada might in some senses be a nation, Quebec is a political division within a state. Artfully, Harper's resolution speaks of "Quebecers," not "Quebec" as a nation.
Remember that the National (sic) Assembly of Quebec has acknowledged what it calls aboriginal "nations" down to the size of a few hundred souls. Remember, too, that Cape Bretoners, Newfoundlanders and others linked by ties of geography and heritage and culture would no doubt consider themselves nations, too, if they bothered to ask themselves the question. By that standard it seems almost mean-spirited to deny Quebecers' claim.
But it is more pointedly mean-spirited to insist, as do Bernard Landry and others, that a) Quebec (not Quebecers) is manifestly a nation, and b) therefore it should be a state, independent of Canada. This is measured abuse of the amorphous nature of the concept of nationhood.
That was exactly Gilles Duceppe's line yesterday - if we're a nation then you can't tell us we're a nation within a united Canada; you can't tell us anything.
Strikingly, however, the New Democrats and the Liberals, most of them, pounced joyfully on Harper's new formula. The Liberals are suddenly off the hook, and the Rest-Of-Canada can speak to Quebec with one cheerful voice: Fine, call yourselves a nation within Canada, and let's move on to debate issues of practical importance.
So where will this go next? If Harper defuses this issue, Quebecers will feel a little better about Canada - and about the Conservatives. But if Duceppe et al can manage somehow to twist this into another "humiliation," then Canadian unity will have been weakened.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006