Guided only by political opportunism and with no other idea of where they're going, the Quebec members of the federal Liberal Party giddily decided on the weekend to take the country on another doomed expedition into the great dismal swamp of constitutional reform.
To the sound of Pierre Trudeau turning in his grave, the Quebec wing of his old party adopted a resolution recognizing this province as a nation.
The resolution stops well short of saying this recognition should be enshrined in the constitution. Rather, it would leave it up to a "task force" to advise the party's next leader on when and how to "officialize" recognition, and doesn't even mention the constitution.
"It could be political or cultural," the proposer of the final version of the resolution, William Hogg, a Bishop's University political scientist, told me yesterday. "It doesn't have to be formalized. We didn't want to tie the hands of the next leader or take a position in favour of any of the candidates."
But that important detail was buried deep below the headlines raising the expectations of Quebec newspaper readers, to whom constitutional recognition with real effect is the only kind that matters.
With that one ill-considered resolution, the Liberals have ensured that the explosive issue of Quebec's identity and status polarizes their party's national convention later this fall and therefore the country as it is about to head into elections at the federal and Quebec levels.
They also have made sure that the new leader who will be chosen there will start out already weakened and on the defensive in one part of the country or another.
They did so by making the resolution a priority, sending it directly to the convention's plenary session to be debated by all the delegates. So either the convention as a whole will recognize Quebec as a nation, or it will not. And even the leadership candidates who have studiously avoided the question will be forced to take a position.
This is all Michael Ignatieff's fault. Convinced that he is smarter than all the people who have tried and failed to settle the Quebec question during the three decades that he was out of the country, he has proposed to recognize Quebec as a nation in the constitution.
This has made Ignatieff popular in Quebec. More elected convention delegates from this province support him than any other candidate (though together, the delegates supporting Stephane Dion and Bob Rae, who oppose constitutional recognition of Quebec as a nation, outnumber Ignatieff's). And Ignatieff's supporters dominated the meeting at which the Quebec resolution was adopted.
But none of the Quebec commentators who have been cheering him on suggest there is even a remote chance of success of his constitutional proposal in the foreseeable future.
And while the mere word "nation" might be too much for English Canada to swallow when applied to Quebec as well as aboriginals, the recognition he is proposing is purely symbolic, and so empty that no Quebec government could accept it.
The campaign manifesto in which he made the proposal says recognition would not be "a prelude to further devolution of powers."
Nor would it be an interpretive clause like the "distinct-society" clause in the ill-fated Meech Lake accord, directing governments, legislatures and the courts to take Quebec's nationhood into account in interpreting the rest of the constitution, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
For Ignatieff's "fundamental principles" that are to be respected in the constitution include "the unity of Canadian citizenship" and "the primacy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
This falls well short of Quebec's "minimal" position in the Meech Lake accord, as well as the position of its current federalist government.
Benoit Pelletier, the Charest government's minister for Canadian intergovernmental affairs and architect of its position on federal-provincial relations, said diplomatically yesterday that he is "encouraged" that the idea of recognizing Quebec is "advancing."
But, he also told me, the Charest government "favours" recognizing Quebec in the constitution, which is more than what the Quebec federal Liberals are offering, and in an interpretive clause, which is more than what Ignatieff is offering.
So even before the federal Liberal convention tears itself apart over the offers, Quebec has already rejected them.
Liberal Party prepared to rip itself apart over Quebec 'nationhood'
But provincial Liberals already reject the policy as not going far enough
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