Under the erratic guidance of Michael Ignatieff, the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party of Canada has happily gone down the road to political suicide. This, in itself, is unimportant. In politics, as in life, suicide, assisted or not, should be tolerated. The problem is that the Liberals are bringing the rest of the country along with them.
In the foolish hope that a veiled promise of recognizing Quebec's national character in the Constitution would give them back the lost votes of Quebec francophones, the Liberals are unleashing a process that will inevitably lead to division and resentment throughout the land, and end in abject failure.
The first victims will be Quebeckers who are offered something that cannot be delivered. It is beyond cynicism to exploit their visceral desire for official recognition by false promises. Mr. Ignatieff could be excused for not realizing that a revisiting of the Meech and Charlottetown sagas should be off the agenda of any sensible politician. He waded into the constitutional quagmire without charting the territory, without knowing where it would lead him. Whether by naiveté or hubris, Mr. Ignatieff seems to believe that he can succeed where everybody has failed for the past 30 years.
The old-time Liberals, though, have no excuse for leaping on Mr. Ignatieff's irresponsible proposal. Even though the resolution of the Quebec Liberals is relatively cautious (it calls for an official recognition of "the Quebec nation within Canada" and avoids explicitly mentioning the Constitution), they should have known how explosive it is. Unless I am misreading the mood of the rest of Canada, the concept of a Quebec nation will be rejected even more forcefully than the tamer "distinct society" concept contained in the Meech Lake accord. So no government will be foolish enough to engage in a round of constitutional negotiations. Quebeckers will feel duped and frustrated.
Even if, by some miracle, there were negotiations, they wouldn't be exclusively driven by Quebec's agenda, and a host of other governments and pressure groups would push for their own demands, some of which (like native claims over territory and the Senate reform favoured by the West) are unacceptable to Quebec. In the best-case scenario, Quebeckers would be disappointed. In the worst-case scenario, they would be furious.
The Liberals are in a pickle. They will have to consider the resolution of the party's Quebec wing at their late November convention and go through a heated and divisive debate two days before they chose their new leader.
If they vote against the resolution, or if they manage to dilute it, they will be accused by the sovereigntists of being "anti-Quebec." Once again, the "soft nationalists" will feel rejected by "English Canada." If they vote in favour of it, they will be accused of pandering to Quebec in the rest of Canada.
The irony is that the Liberal Party really won't even benefit from its demagogic U-turn on the national unity file. The Quebec-wing resolution didn't pass the test of Quebec's political class and the overbidding has already started. Many nationalist commentators, including Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoît Pelletier, insisted that the only valid recognition of Quebec as a nation should be constitutional. Others said that a "symbolic" constitutional recognition wouldn't be enough if it didn't provide for more powers for the province and explicitly recognize Quebec's "right to self-determination."
As Montreal Gazette columnist Don Macpherson wrote, "even before the federal Liberal convention tears itself apart over the offers [of recognizing Quebec as a nation], Quebec has already rejected them."
Federalists should stop obsessing about the threat of another referendum on sovereignty. First, it's far from sure that there will even be one. Second, if the sovereigntist movement ever grew strong enough to convince a majority of Quebeckers to break away from Canada, it is not a token recognition of their "nation" that would stop the tide.