Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been too clever by half, as the British might say, in trying to defuse the Quebec-is-a-nation debate.
The surprise bombshell that Harper dropped yesterday to have Parliament "recognize that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada" will never placate Quebec separatists, even as it potentially weakens Canada by handing them another argument the next time - and there almost certainly will be a "next time" - they seek to break up this country.
"Look, even Parliament recognizes our nationhood," will be the separatist clarion call. "Let's make it official, and jump ship."
Far from defusing an explosive debate triggered by Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff's reckless flirtation with the "Quebec is my nation" concept, Harper's intervention yesterday simply fuels it. And he arrogantly made his move without so much as consulting the public first.
The Conservatives argue that Harper's motion - with its emphasis on Quebecers, not Quebec, and with the caveat "within a united Canada" - is a cleverly defensive one. It counters another motion put forward by Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, to be debated today in the Commons, "that this House recognize that the Quebecois form a nation."
As leader of a minority Conservative government with no mandate to stir the Confederation debate, Harper would have been more prudent to simply declare the Bloc motion mischievous and urge all federalist Members of Parliament to join the Conservatives in voting it down.
Instead, he chose to play a dangerous game. Now MPs must debate and vote on two troublesome resolutions that will heighten concern about the country's long-term unity. Both deserve to be voted down.
No doubt many Liberals will be tempted to support Harper's resolution, even as they vote against the Bloc. Parliamentary approval for the Harper version would defuse an expected furor at the Liberal leadership convention next week in Montreal over a third resolution along the same lines. Quebec Liberals, with Ignatieff's backing, have pushed forward a resolution to have the convention recognize "the Quebec nation within Canada," and to "officialize this historical and social reality."
Before any Liberals tie themselves to Harper's coattails hoping to placate Quebec nationalists and spare themselves embarrassment, they should consider whether it is possible to imagine the party of Pierre Trudeau, who was a strong promoter of both Canadian unity and Quebecers' interests in official Ottawa and across the country, supporting any of these three irksome resolutions.
It is not as if Canadians have not recognized that Quebec is a unique and valued part of this country. A decade ago, Parliament passed a resolution formally recognizing Quebec as a "distinct society." Quebec was also given a veto over constitutional change. These were tangible affirmations of Canada's acceptance of Quebec's unique identity. And many Canadians also readily accept that Quebecers are a "nation" in the sociological sense.
But there are broader implications in having Parliament recognize communities as "nations," or in enshrining such recognition in the Constitution, however hedged the language may be. Recognized "nations" have the right under international law to secede in some circumstances. Canadians have lived with that pressure for decades. Veterans of the 1980 and 1995 referendums know the danger in feeding it.
Harper's unwise intervention in this debate promises to embolden separatists and create division and bitterness. It was bad enough that Ignatieff and the Liberals blundered down this path. It was inevitable that the Bloc would try to capitalize on it.
But it was utterly unnecessary for the Prime Minister to compound the problem by inviting Parliament to endorse this folly and take unwarranted risks with the future of the country.