Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government was rocked by its first resignation yesterday after Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Michael Chong quit rather than vote for a motion that he said endorses ethnic nationalism.
Chong told reporters he supports the government's program but could not support Harper's motion recognizing the "Quebecois" as a nation.
"I believe that recognizing the Quebecois as a nation even within a united Canada is nothing else than the recognition of an ethnic nationalism, and that I cannot support," Chong said.
"It cannot be interpreted as the recognition of a territorial nationalism, for it does not refer to a geographic entity but to a group of people."
The House of Commons endorsed the motion by an overwhelming vote of 266 to 16.
Chong, who represents the Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills, said the motion risks providing more ammunition to sovereignists, giving them "an argument they will use to confuse Quebecers in any future debate on sovereignty."
"They will argue that if the Quebecois are a nation within Canada, then they are certainly a nation without Canada," he said.
Peter Van Loan, MP for the Ontario riding of York-Simcoe, was named to replace Chong as Privy Council president, minister of intergovernmental affairs and minister for sport.
Chong's resignation is the latest twist in a saga that began last week when the Bloc Quebecois attempted to capitalize on division within the Liberals and Conservatives by tabling a motion recognizing Quebecers as a nation.
Harper, in a surprise pre-emptive strike, responded with a motion of his own, recognizing the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada.
Yesterday, Chong revealed that while Harper had consulted Liberal leadership candidate Stephane Dion before tabling the motion, he had not consulted his own intergovernmental affairs minister.
Even as MPs rose to vote yesterday, their interpretations of what the motion meant and its possible repercussions varied considerably.
On his way out of the vote, Harper said national unity was more important than any one person.
"Tonight was an important night, I think it is a historic night. Canadians across the country said yes to Quebec, yes to Quebecers, and Quebecers said yes to Canada.
"In politics you take risks ... but national unity, national reconciliation are more important than any one party or than any one person."
Harper refused, however, to define what the motion meant by "Quebecois," saying, "the Quebecois know who they are."
Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe welcomed the vote.
"We're a nation within Canada now and we will be a nation in a sovereign country in the near future," said Duceppe, who defined Quebecois as everyone living in Quebec.
"Canada is officially tonight the first country to recognize that there is a nation in Quebec."
Harper's motion was warmly welcomed when it was tabled last week - but yesterday, the lingering confusion about some of the words had key figures saying they couldn't support it.
Liberal leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy said he supports the idea that Quebecers form a nation in a sociological sense, but he could not support Harper's motion.
"In this resolution, we are giving official recognition to the idea of nation without defining it, and that is irresponsible," Kennedy said.
Liberal leadership rival Ken Dryden also opposed the motion, charging that people were being deliberately vague to win political games.
"This is pure politics," he told the House of Commons.
"All this started with the ludicrous concept of having a debate fundamental to the country based on different understandings of the word 'nation.' In the last few days, it has deteriorated into the ludicrous reality of such a debate in practice."
Dion, also running for the leadership, took a different tact, supporting the motion but spelling out what he thought it meant.
"The third sense of the word nation, the sociological sense, we Quebecers are a nation, because we form within Canada a vast enough group - almost a quarter of the population - we have a consciousness of our unity and our will to live together.
"In that sense, it is correct to say that Quebecers form a nation within a united Canada."
Garth Turner, who sits as an independent after being ejected from the Conservative caucus, said he voted against the motion because it was unclear.
"There are enough questions for people to say, 'Why are we rushing into it?' "