MINISTER QUITS CABINET BUT MOTION PASSES BY HUGE MARGIN
par GLORIA GALLOWAY, BILL CURRY AND ALEX DOBROTA
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's plan to outmanoeuvre separatists with a motion to recognize the Québécois as a nation has cost the government a cabinet minister and exposed fractious divides within both the Liberals and Conservatives.
The vote last night passed by 266 votes to 16. The only MPs who stood to oppose the motion were newly Independent member Garth Turner and 15 members of the Liberal caucus - including leadership candidates Ken Dryden and Joe Volpe.
Missing from the Conservative bench was Michael Chong, the man who had just resigned as minister of intergovernmental affairs over his inability to recognize the Québécois as a nation, even when framed within a united Canada.
"Recognizing the Québécois as a nation will provide the sovereigntists with an argument they will use to confuse Quebeckers in any future debate on sovereignty. They will argue that if the Québécois are a nation within Canada then they are certainly a nation without Canada," said Mr. Chong who, despite his role in cabinet, had not been apprised of the government plan before it was put to caucus.
Mr. Chong said he opposed proffering special status on any particular ethnic group, even when that group is one of the country's two founding peoples.
The focus should instead be on Canada as a multicultural county, he said, adding that English and French are already acknowledged by the federal government through official bilingualism.
"I believe that recognizing the Québécois as a nation, even within a united Canada, is nothing else than the recognition of an ethnic nationalism and that I cannot support," he said.
The MP from Wellington-Halton Hills remained sombre but calm as he gave up more than $70,000 in annual salary as well as a chauffeur, office staff and prestige.
Within hours, he was replaced in cabinet by Peter Van Loan, another Ontario MP who was once the president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.
Mr. Chong is the first minister to step down over a matter of principle since Joe Comuzzi left the Liberal cabinet in June of 2005 because he could not support same-sex marriage.
Although several other Conservative members were missing, Inky Mark, an MP from Manitoba, was the only abstention.
Senate Leader Marjorie LeBreton and Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, the two ministers tasked with responding to Mr. Chong's resignation, said they understood it was a personal decision and not a comment on the government's overall agenda.
But the two appeared to have difficulty explaining the ethnic aspects of the nation motions from the government and the Bloc Québécois.
The point of controversy is the English translation of the text. The Bloc motion in French recognizes les Québécois et Québécoises, which can mean all men and women who live in Quebec. Rather than using the English word, Quebeckers, which means all residents of Quebec and is the word used in English by the Bloc, the government's motion in English uses the French term, les Québécois.
When pressed by reporters as to who qualifies as Québécois, Ms. LeBreton suggested it had a broad meaning.
"I know anglophone Quebeckers who call themselves Québécois," she said.
But when asked whether the motion applied to all residents of Quebec, Mr. Cannon said: "No, it doesn't."
Mr. Cannon then said the wording, first used by the Bloc and repeated in the government motion, refers to "pure laine" Quebeckers, a controversial term avoided by sovereigntists for its racial connotations, given that it literally translates to "pure wool."
Mr. Cannon then insisted that the Bloc's attempt to recognize the pure laine was done to divide the country and that Mr. Chong's concerns about ethnic nationalism are justified.
"We're not playing semantics with the words," he said. "We are saying that that is a formal decision that was taken by Quebeckers years ago and here's the . . . first group of sovereigntists that are admitting this fact of life."
The Bloc had introduced its own motion last week asking the House to recognize the Québécois as a nation. Mr. Harper then put forward his own motion to recognize that Québécois "form a nation within a united Canada."
Asked yesterday about Mr. Chong's resignation, Mr. Harper defended his course of action.
"This government believes strongly that the time has come for national reconciliation," the Prime Minister told the House.
"That is why we put forward the motion before the House today. It recognizes the Quebec nation within a united Canada. We believe this is the kind of respect and reconciliation that Quebeckers are looking for."
Last week, spokesmen for both the Conservatives and the Liberals delighted in Mr. Harper's derailment of the Bloc plan to expose schisms in the federalist parties by asking for affirmation of Quebec's nationhood. The Bloc motion was specifically aimed at the Liberals, who were expecting the matter to erupt into a difficult battle on the floor of this week's leadership convention.
And when the Bloc went from angry denunciation of the motion on Wednesday to resigned support of it on Friday, the Conservatives openly gloated at having beaten Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe at his own game.
But it was apparent yesterday that the ball lobbed by Mr. Duceppe had rolled over both the Liberals and the Conservatives, taking people like Mr. Chong with it.
Mr. Duceppe claimed victory after the vote, saying it is important that Canada recognizes Quebec is a nation.
He said the term applies to all Quebeckers, not only the "pure laine" as suggested earlier in the day by Mr. Cannon.
"If he's saying that, that's his problem," Mr. Duceppe said.
'Nation' plan costs Harper
La nation québécoise vue du Canada
MINISTER QUITS CABINET BUT MOTION PASSES BY HUGE MARGIN