Éditorial - The Edmonton Journal - Michael Ignatieff's decision to recognize Quebec as "a nation within Canada" may well have been a shrewd tactic in his bid to win the federal Liberal leadership, but it's a lousy strategy for the Liberal party.
It raises expectations in Quebec, and risks putting the country on a course that might lead to a constitutional showdown.
During a meeting of the party's Quebec wing last weekend, Ignatieff got his supporters to plant a resolution calling on the party to recognize Quebec as a nation. That resolution garnered 60-per-cent approval and will now go forward to the national policy convention, which precedes next month's leadership vote.
While the resolution itself makes no mention of enshrining "nation" status in the constitution, Ignatieff was less cautious, leaving the distinct impression with the Quebec media that he was open to it.
"We have to have hope (that Quebec would be willing to sign onto the constitution)," he said. "We can't let the failures of the past define our future in common."
That left his two main rivals -- Bob Rae and Stephane Dion, both avowed federalists -- stumbling. They both said that while they believe Quebec is in many ways distinct, recognizing that legally is unnecessary and would distract the country from more pressing matters.
Ignatieff's tactic leaves the Liberal party, his party, deeply divided and in a no-win situation. If the resolution passes and Ignatieff wins the leadership, the Liberals will likely find themselves under considerable pressure to launch a new round of constitutional discussions, the kind that consumed Brian Mulroney's second term when he tried to pass the Meech Lake accord and, later, the Charlottetown accord. Both were highly divisive and were ultimately scuppered by the provinces.
If the Liberal resolution passes by a close margin but Ignatieff loses, the new leader will be forced to champion a policy that runs contrary to the long-held views of the Liberal Party which has generally resisted granting special legal status to Quebec.
The most likely scenario, however, is that, in a Montreal conference hall, the resolution will be voted down by delegates from English Canada, which sets the stage for cleaving the party along language lines.
Many senior Liberals were outraged over what they viewed as Ignatieff's crass and myopic maneuver, saying it betrays nearly 50 years of party history and runs counter to the legacies of Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, who battled fiercely to engage but not pander to Quebec. At best, this is insensitive, or worse, it's a Paul-Martin-esque pandering to the votes of soft separatists.
This is where Ignatieff's nearly three decades of living outside of Canada -- not to mention his obvious political inexperience -- shows through. Do Ignatieff and his supporters in Quebec really believe he can address the Quebec conundrum in a vacuum? Can Quebec's nationhood really be discussed without also looking at senate reform? Can the West get senate reform without Ontario having its so-called fiscal gap addressed?
Obviously not, or countless other politicians would have done it before now. Frankly, Ignatieff is deluding himself if he thinks the rest of Canada, especially the West, will be willing to address Quebec's constitutional sensitivities without their own issues on the table.
If Ignatieff wants to reopen the constitution, he needs to come forward, quickly, with a far more detailed plan that addresses regional grievances of all sorts.