"Quebecers have come to understand themselves as a nation," Michael Ignatieff writes in his Liberal leadership campaign platform, Agenda for Nation Building. So why not rewrite the Constitution to recognize Quebec as a nation within the fabric of Canada?
Quebecers should be able to say: "Quebec is my nation, but Canada is my country," Ignatieff declared during Sunday's leadership debate in Quebec city. And he wouldn't stop there.
He also wants to recognize aboriginal peoples as nations.
And he proposes to further rejig the 1982 Constitution to clarify the untidy division of powers among Ottawa, the provinces, territories and aboriginals. He wants "clear procedures for sharing jurisdictions that overlap." And Ottawa should have a defined mandate to promote "the unity of Canadian citizenship," economic unity and sovereignty.
This breathtaking project has left more than a few Liberals wondering whether the former Harvard academic fully grasps the depth of the Canadian public's aversion to constitutional wrangling.
In fairness, Ignatieff is driven partly by a desire to heal Canada's sorest political wound, the refusal of Quebec to endorse the document that binds us together. The day Quebec does sign the Constitution will be one to celebrate. But Canadians still bear the scars of the Meech Lake (1987) and Charlottetown accord (1992) constitutional debacles. Most will resist being dragged down that thorny path again.
Regardless of how Quebecers may define themselves, the implications of recognizing Quebec or native groups as "nations" are sweeping and risky. The term is loosely used to encompass anything ranging from a sizeable identifiable ethnic group, like the Scots or Welsh nations, up to a distinct political state, as in the United Nations membership.
Ignatieff argues that there are 5,000 recognized nations in the world and fewer than 200 countries. In that sense, Quebec francophones may well have a "national" claim. He also defines Quebec inclusively as a "civic nation, not an ethnic nation," meaning that it is home to anglophones and others, not just francophones. Whether Canada's 614 first nations communities would also self-identify as "civic nations" is less certain.
But once enshrined in Canada's Constitution, the word would take on a far narrower legal significance. International law, for example, gives "nations" the right to secede. Sovereignists might manoeuvre to claim it.
Moreover, if Canada is to be thought of as a nation in the United Nations sense, and Quebec is a nation in some other sense and the Six Nations of the Grand River territory is a nation of yet another kind, the term will either lose all meaning or it will invite power struggles and secession bids.
No doubt Ignatieff would hope to craft any new constitutional deal carefully to avoid such problems. But far from building the nation, the inevitable debate could tear it apart. And for what? Canadians quickly recognized Quebec's practical political claims after the 1995 referendum.
Parliament adopted a resolution recognizing Quebec as a "distinct society," and passed a law giving Quebec and other regions a veto over future constitutional change. These measures give Quebecers in practice what many had sought to enshrine in the Constitution. Building on that, Ottawa agreed in 1999 not to start up any new social programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction without the approval of a majority of provinces, another affirmation of provincial rights. This counts as progress.
Another scarred veteran of the constitutional battlegrounds, Liberal leadership contender Bob Rae, called Ignatieff's plan "dangerous" during the leadership debate. He pointed out that the simplest constitutional negotiations are tough and ratification is near impossible.
There is no push in Canada for a new constitutional round. Liberal Quebec Premier Jean Charest is not interested. And Quebec sovereignists, while ever a threat, are not in power and cannot call a referendum.
The day may yet come when we have no choice but to reopen debate. But there's no reason to rock the boat just yet, or to drive it onto the rocks.