Ignatieff's Quebec policy betrays either his arrogance or ignorance

For many Canadians, reopening talks on the constitution is a non-starter

La nation québécoise vue par les fédéralistes québécois

It takes self-confidence to the point of arrogance for any politician to face voters and say, in effect:
"Elect me, and I'll succeed where others have failed to solve a problem, to eliminate hospital waiting lists, say, because - well, just because I am who I am."
It requires even more to presume you are is not only qualified to lead a country from which you have been mostly absent for nearly three decades, as Michael Ignatieff has been, but the most qualified of the available candidates.
Ignatieff's friend and leadership rival, Bob Rae, told The Gazette this week it might have been a belief on Ignatieff's part that he has "a fresh perspective" that led him to call for boldness in recognizing Quebec nationhood in the constitution.
Someone less charitable might say it was either an excess of the self-confidence that all politicians must possess, or ignorance on the part of one occupied elsewhere during our last constitutional war.
"Other candidates have said there should be a recognition of Quebec, but the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a nation is too difficult," said Ignatieff, in his conclusion at the Liberal leadership forum in Quebec City on Sunday.
"Yes, it is difficult, but we have to do it."
His ringing words were reminiscent of John Kennedy's 1961 call to send a man to the moon. But sending a man to the moon has proved to be easier. All it took was brains, several years and a lot of money.
Rae and Stephane Dion, the "other candidates" whom Ignatieff implicitly accused of timidity, bear the psychic scars of the traumatic last days of the 1995 referendum campaign, the culmination of a failed previous attempt to recognize Quebec, then as a "distinct society."
Ignatieff has read Machiavelli's warning in The Prince: "It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."
But he was away covering other wars - real ones, not metaphorical ones, but far from Quebec when it became Canada's ground zero.
Rae and Dion have learned firsthand what happens when a Canadian prime minister ignores Machiavelli's warning. So it is not surprising they do not share Ignatieff's enthusiasm for another round of constitutional Russian roulette, with five chambers loaded instead of one.
And worse for Ignatieff, it's not likely many Canadians, including Liberals, share it, either, despite the applause he received from his claque at the Quebec City forum. He seemed out of touch with much of the country and perhaps the party, less the new Pierre Trudeau than the new John Turner. Of the errors he has committed in his campaign, this might prove to be the most serious.
In fact, his actual written policy is not as bold as he made it sound on Sunday.
"Creating the conditions for a successful negotiation to complete our nation-building will take time," he wrote. "Constitutional review is for the future. Right now, Canadians are looking for a new era of cooperation among the orders of government." Rae and Dion would agree.
Furthermore, recognition of Quebec nationhood is "simply to acknowledge a fact," and is not "a prelude to further devolution of powers." Indeed, "Quebec already possesses the authority it needs."
So Ignatieff's recognition of Quebec as a nation would be empty flattery, based on a non-ethnic, civic nationhood that even some well-known sovereignists now say is an ideal rather than reality. If anything, Ignatieff was in favour of centralization of power in order to strengthen national unity.
Too bad, perhaps, for the one constituency in Canada that had reason to look forward to an Ignatieff government's attempting to satisfy the constitutional demands not only of Quebec, but also of every other province and minority group in the country.
Anyway, it's already too late for Quebec sovereignists to join the Liberal Party and vote for Ignatieff's delegates to the leadership convention.
Ignatieff's policy document, Agenda for Nation Building, is on his campaign website: www.michaelignatieff.ca

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