Harper 'will rue this day,' experts say

Tory and Liberal jockeying for votes in Quebec will ignite constitutional crisis

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

par Mike Blanchfield, The Ottawa Citizen
Parliament's historic acknowledgment of the Quebecois as a nation may be nothing more than a symbolic gesture, but it will embolden separatists and eventually plunge Canada into another constitutional crisis, analysts warned yesterday.
And the Liberals and Conservatives have only themselves to blame for this because they placed their own political needs -- competing against each other to be the federalist option in Quebec -- ahead of what is good for the country.
"This prime minister and federalists in both parties who voted for this motion are going to have to gird their loins and get ready to fight separatism on a new front," said Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of the Dominion Institute.
Mr. Griffiths and others blamed Liberal and Conservative posturing for votes in Quebec for what will likely be bitter fallout following the historic vote in the House of Commons last night that recognized the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada.
"Part of this is the dynamics of a minority Parliament and two parties that are falling over each other to try to win in Parliament by putting forward what they think is the most effective on-the-ground political strategy in the province of Quebec."
Michael Behiels, a University of Ottawa constitutional expert, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper was "outmanoeuvred by the separatists" because Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe said his party will support the government's motion.
Mr. Harper introduced the motion last week to head off the Bloc's own motion, which was seen as an attempt to embarrass federalists and did not acknowledge Quebecers as part of a united Canada.
The issue resurfaced last month when Liberal leadership front-runner Michael Ignatieff called for a debate on a motion that would recognize Quebec as a nation in a sociological sense.
But Mr. Behiels said all of Mr. Harper's insistence that the parliamentary vote is purely symbolic will not prevent separatists from using it to their advantage or stop even a federalist premier such as Jean Charest from pressing for more powers for Quebec.
"Down the road he will rue the day he undertook this gambit," Mr. Behiels said. "The more Harper babbles on about how meaningless this is -- it's just symbolic -- he won't grant Quebecers any more powers, or he has no intention of ever putting such a thing in the Constitution -- the more he will enrage them because he's treating them all like a bunch of children."
Barry Cooper, of the University of Calgary, said the blame for any fallout rests with Mr. Ignatieff, who ignited the debate in a speech five weeks ago. "That's the kind of question you have in a seminar at Harvard. It's not a very bright thing to do in the middle of a leadership campaign," Mr. Cooper said.
Mr. Cooper said the legal ramifications of parliamentary recognition of the Quebecois should be minimal because it has no power in law. He said the political ramifications are being overblown because the Bloc and Parti Quebecois would never have abandoned their pursuit of separatism whether this issue had surfaced or not.
"One way or another, they can spin it to suit their own purposes, so it really has nothing to do with what the parliamentary resolution has to say," Mr. Cooper said. "That's what they're looking for: another humiliation. And they'll find it any way they can," he said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Griffiths said a painful new round of constitutional talks is inevitable.
"This conversation's going to continue," he said. "It's going to continue at a new level, at a new pitch, where the word nation will bounce around in a way that it never did before."

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