Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff proposes that the "national status" of Quebec eventually be enshrined in the Constitution. Two serious rivals, Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion, disagree. How would Canadians respond?
The short answer is differently, depending on where they live. In Quebec, constitutional recognition as a "nation" would be popular, outside Quebec very unpopular. It's a recipe for division, at the level of public opinion.
Consider these findings from an Ekos Research Associates study of August, 2006, done for private clients and government departments (and not leaked by Ekos to The Globe and Mail).
Asked if "the Quebec people form a nation," 72 per cent of Quebeckers said yes. The same question received a yes response from only 24 per cent of Ontarians and about 22 per cent of Western Canadians.
The Ekos sample sizes were very small, so the margins of error were large. But even allowing for large margins of error, a chasm existed between Quebec and the rest of Canada on whether Quebec is a "nation."
Ekos asked whether recognizing Quebec as a nation would "weaken Canadian unity." Only 23 per cent of Quebeckers said yes, compared to 50 per cent of Ontarians and about 55 per cent of Westerners.
Only 21 per cent of Quebeckers thought of the province as one of 10 equal provinces, compared to 47 per cent of Ontarians and about 40 per cent of Albertans and British Columbians who agreed.
Influential federalist voices in Quebec were heartened by Mr. Ignatieff's proposal. Constitutional recognition of Quebec as a "nation" would be a gesture Quebeckers need to cement their attachment to Canada. It would convince many "soft nationalists" to vote for Canada so that any referendum on secession would lose.
They argue that the danger of a winning referendum on sovereignty remains considerable. The Ekos study found that as of August, 2006, the same question that was asked - and narrowly defeated - in 1995 would win by 49 per cent to 41 per cent. The Parti Québécois, now ahead in opinion polls, has promised to hold another referendum if it wins the next election. Supporters of the Ignatieff proposals warn: Wake up before it's too late and make the gesture.
Are they right? Ekos asked whether recognition of Quebec would change referendum voting intentions. Roughly a third of those inclined to vote yes said they "could" change their minds - more than enough to defeat any pro-sovereignty referendum. But note the word "could." That's quite different from "would."
Remember, however, that just four years ago, federalism was riding high, almost historically high, in Quebec. No constitutional promises were being made; none had been tried. The old existential debates about "distinct society" or "nation" had disappeared.
The Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois were in the dumps. Support for the 1995 referendum question plummeted to below 40 per cent. The Chrétien government was above 50 per cent in popularity in Quebec, courtesy of keeping Canada out of Iraq, same-sex marriage, decriminalization of marijuana and support for the Kyoto Protocol.
Then came the sponsorship scandal and, in particular, the way the Martin government handled it. Neither federalism nor the federal Liberal Party has recovered.
If history be any guide, recognizing Quebec as a "nation" will split the country. Certainly divisions over Quebec as a "distinct society" in the Constitution produced the national psychodrama of Meech Lake, the defeat of which created the Bloc Québécois, the referendum of 1995, and a structural shift in federal politics, whereby the Bloc is the province's dominant federal party.
Constitutional talk aside, there are some attitudes so deeply ingrained in Quebec that nothing whatsoever can shake them. About three decades after Bill 101, 60 per cent of Quebeckers still think "the French language in Quebec is threatened," according to Ekos.
Similarly, by a 4-to-3 margin, Quebeckers believe their province puts more money into Confederation than it gets out. Quebeckers have believed this error for decades. Mind you, Atlantic Canadians believe this error about their region, too.
Mr. Ignatieff has been careful to suggest constitutional reform would "take time." There would have to be "good faith and political will on all sides." Aboriginal "nations" should be recognized in the Constitution, too, he insists.
"Constitutional review," he says, "is for the future." Someone who had actually lived through the bitterness of Meech Lake and the Charlottetown accord would want that future to be postponed indefinitely.