Even if Michael Ignatieff doesn't win the Liberal leadership, his brief sojourn in Canadian politics could leave federalists with a nice gift.
The man who wanted Quebec to be recognized as a nation got his wish, thanks to Stephen Harper. The prime minister got the three federalist parties and the Bloc Quebecois to support his motion that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.
After days of wrangling, the National Assembly joined in with a unanimous motion underlining the positive character of Harper's motion.
Thanks to Iggy showing the way, here's the real coup that Harper pulled off: Getting the Bloc and the Parti Quebecois to applaud a motion even though it has no constitutional implications.
When the dust settles and the "nation" debate exits the media, one thing will be left: Federalists will no longer be vulnerable to the accusation from sovereignists that the Quebec nation can't be recognized within Canada.
Sovereignist leaders chose not to stand their ground even though they could have refused to endorse Harper's motion for two reasons: It's an empty shell, constitutionally speaking, and the English version, with "Quebecois," instead of "Quebecers," is equivocal.
Some say it covers all Quebecers. Others, including Michael Chong, the minister of intergovernmental affairs who resigned over this, are sure it covers only francophones and is an expression of ethnic nationalism.
It will take some time to tell whether the choice of supporting Harper's motion was a historical error for sovereignists, or a savvy move.
It would prove to be an error if it ends up convincing soft nationalists that even a symbolic recognition has meaning and is possible within Canada.
It would be a savvy move if soft nationalists end up not falling for Harper's seductive move. I mention soft nationalists because as 15-20 per cent of voters, they decide the final outcome of any referendum. In this nation saga, it's a sure bet that they were Harper's and Jean Charest's real target.
With support for sovereignty at a stable 45 per cent, Harper and Charest don't need to convince every soft nationalist. A good five to 10 per cent of voters would suffice. And if Harper soon delivers the other promise he made in his Quebec speech last Dec. 19 - to limit federal spending power in provincial jurisdictions - soft nationalists are bound to pay attention.
For now, the rallying of sovereignist leaders behind Harper's motion is giving federalists reason to be optimistic. In 1990, Quebec had five conditions it wanted recognized in the constitution via the Meech Lake Accord. In comparison, today's federalist-sovereignist consensus over a purely symbolic motion makes Quebec look like a cheap date.
Andre Boisclair even claims it shows Canada has finally ended its denial that Quebec is a nation. Maybe he missed this week's newspapers throughout the ROC where politicians and most columnists fiercely disagreed with the motion.
Or maybe he missed Tuesday's Leger Marketing poll showing a whopping 77 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec reject the notion of Quebec as a "nation."
As for Ignatieff, who got this ball rolling, he might have handed federalists a nice strategical gift. But he stands alone among the four leading candidates as appearing to really, really believe now that Quebec is a nation.
His problem is that most Canadians outside Quebec, including Liberal delegates, are so opposed to seeing Quebec as a nation that it blinds them to how valuable Iggy's gift could be for them in the longer term.
So they might be tempted to tell Iggy: Thanks for the memories, but we'd rather have Bob Rae or Stephane Dion, who, at least, won't follow this nation thing with a new round of constitutional talks.
If, somehow, Ignatieff wins anyway, the rejection by the ROC of any special status for Quebec will express itself loudly enough to make him change his mind about that, too.
And we know how good Iggy is at changing his mind.
Iggy's gift to federalists
Nation Notion is an empty shell, but it helps take pressure off federalists