It's to Stephen Harper's credit that he refused to be stampeded into using the n-word during his recent foray into Quebec. No doubt, judging from the hullabaloo, it would have been politic for the Prime Minister of Canada to agree that la belle province is a nation. However, as Serge Joyal - a minister and veteran of the constitutional wars under Pierre Trudeau - put it: "Those kinds of buzz words encourage ambiguous notions about the Canadian identity. Some don't realize that, in playing with the word, you fall into the trap of words."
Setting the trap was Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who demanded that Mr. Harper explain why the Canadian government recognizes Acadians and aboriginals, but not Quebec, as nations. I'm not sure about his experience but, when I was working in Moncton, I did not run into any Haitian-Acadians, and I've yet to meet a single Italo-Nisga'a here in British Columbia. In fact, it's bizarre that Mr. Duceppe would invoke the analogy. Though aboriginals feature in the first definition of "nation" set out in my Petit Larousse, the sovereigntists - and Mr. Duceppe in particular - have been working assiduously to separate themselves from the taint of ethnic nationalism that has impaired their success.
While one would have liked Mr. Harper to challenge him, one can understand why, with the Quebec media enthusiastically amplifying Mr. Duceppe's arguments, the Prime Minister chose to sidestep and focus on what he said was the real question - political independence. Indeed, sovereignty is at the heart of the other definition you'll find in Petit Larousse, and it's the one that PQ Leader André Boisclair seems to have had in mind when, letting the cat out of the bag, he declared, "Whether one is nationalist or federalist, one must admit that Quebeckers form a unique nation."
While Mr. Harper may pay a political price in the short term, his refusal to endorse Mr. Boisclair's equation of nationalism and sovereignty could turn out to be a winner if Michael Ignatieff - whom most observers see as the front-runner in the Liberal leadership race - leads the Grits into the next federal election.
Mr. Ignatieff says Quebec qualifies as a nation, in part, because of its French language, and the Liberals, traditionally the champion of linguistic minorities, could pay a price at the polls in their last Quebec redoubt, were they to suggest that anglophones are less than full Quebeckers.
Beyond these electoral considerations, it's worrisome for anyone concerned about national unity to see Mr. Ignatieff playing directly into the hands of sovereigntists who, for tactical reasons or from the mistaken impression that it's a feasible arrangement, advocate an association with Canada. Perhaps Mr. Ignatieff, who has spent much of his career outside Canada, did not appreciate fully Mr. Duceppe's terminological nuances in dissing Mr. Harper: "It is as if I were to say on July 1 that I refuse to recognize the existence of the Canadian nation."
Mr. Duceppe was, of course, referring to Canada without Quebec. Mr. Ignatieff, on the other hand, says it's important that Quebec sign the Constitution, and that he'd be willing to grant it powers that nine provinces would not have, provided a way can be found not to impair the equality of citizens.
Assuming that rivals such as Ken Dryden and Bob Rae don't impale Mr. Ignatieff first on this un-Trudeau-like view, Mr. Harper would have great fun in an election campaign demanding that Mr. Ignatieff come clean on the powers he has in mind.
For, as Mr. Ignatieff should know from his expatriate experience, down that route lies what's known in the United Kingdom as the West Lothian question: How can one justify that members representing Scottish constituencies at Westminster may vote on legislation that applies to England, whereas MPs representing English seats do not have the opportunity to vote on matters that have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament?
Simmering in the U.K. for 30 years, this question is now coming to a boil with the prospect of a Scot - Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown - succeeding Tony Blair as prime minister. It is not a question one would want to see asked in Canada. Indeed, the two-nations view of Canada that Mr. Ignatieff is encouraging with his statements is unhelpful, even for those who wish simply to reform federalism through administrative means. For, if Quebec is a nation, how can one expect it ever to accept a securities regulator, for example, that's located in any financial centre other than its own?