Notionally a nation, sort of, maybe . . .

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe we're in another national unity debate. Suddenly, there's a whole list of questions on the front pages, all to do with Quebec and Quebeckers (or Québécois, and that's an important distinction), and whether it or they or both or all, is or are, a nation or a nation. I can't make sense of it. It's semantic roulette.

At the beginning of the week, the only people seriously exposed to the torments of the various formulations about “Quebec as a nation” were the Liberals heading into convention. Front-runner Michael Ignatieff ignited a parlous and perilous debate on the subject with his famous formulation about how he was with those people who say “Quebec is my nation, Canada is my country.” When the Quebec wing of the party actually passed a resolution to that effect, however, Mr. Ignatieff began a charming “Don't look at me” routine.

The Liberals were really worried. Would the resolution, the reawakening of the Quebec question, split the party the very moment it was choosing a leader?
Enter, fresh from Vietnam, Stephen Harper. Barely out of those generous blue drapes he wore at the Asian summit, he announces a three-party-supported resolution, authored by himself, to the Commons stating, “that this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” Then, yesterday, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe announced his party, too, would support Mr. Harper's motion, this being the same motion Mr. Harper usurped from Mr. Duceppe in the first place. Mr. Harper had obviously hoped that by adding the phrase “within a united Canada” as a legislative poison pill to Mr. Duceppe's original motion “that this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation,” that the Bloc would be snookered. Not so. The Bloc evidently likes Mr. Harper's motion just fine, thank you.
There's the first major clue what a feast of potential mischief this is. First, notice it says Québécois, Quebeckers - not Quebec: the people not the province. Note, too, please, that when it says Québécois, it must mean not all Quebeckers but the subset of Quebeckers who are of francophone origin.
This gets messy really quickly.
Because surely Mr. Harper's motion, backed by Liberal Leader Bill Graham and NDP Leader Jack Layton, and even Mr. Duceppe, does not mean, for the purposes of the resolution, that the First Nations people in Quebec are “Québécois.” Nor one (again) presumes, does he mean the English of Montreal, nor the many recent immigrants from all over the globe. A whole lot of Quebeckers, people living in Quebec, you see, are not “Québécois.”

Next, there's the word nation. Nation doesn't here - we guess - mean nation, as in the nation of France or the United States, but nation as in - well, as in what precisely? Some say it means nation in the sense of a set of citizens in Quebec having the same linguistic heritage and of an identifiable and discrete culture. So, I guess it's saying that (some) Quebeckers are a nation within the province of Quebec. Stop and admire that for a second: “a nation within the province.”

And then that same subset of Quebeckers (or Québécois) are also a nation (the French meaning) within the nation (the English meaning) of Canada. With the key proviso that the Canada we're talking about is a “united Canada.” Should Canada somehow become “un-united,” presumably Quebeckers would simultaneously not be a nation/ nation.

I would rather herd cats and juggle eels for a living than parse this “historic” resolution. It is an uncooked stew of ambiguity, imprecision, unresolved meanings, conflicting senses, and unspecific intent. It has neither logical nor legal nor semantic rigour.

Best summed up when you hear that the resolution means Québécois Quebeckers are being recognized as a nation “only in the sociological sense.” Absolutely. The House of Commons is always passing resolutions to clarify the sociology textbooks.

What has happened may be hinted at with a list.
1. For the oddest and most impenetrable of reasons, Stephen Harper has appointed himself Michael Ignatieff's crisis manager. Suddenly the so recently shy Mr. Ignatieff is trumpeting on TV his proud paternity of the great national unity debate after all: “It really did start with us, in the leadership campaign, going into small towns in Quebec. . . etc. etc.”

2. All the political parties in Ottawa, all of them, are now embroiled in discussing the Quebec question, Quebec as a nation. It is being discussed in Quebec as well. And, mark these words, it will be discussed and argued over, in increasingly agitated tones, in every other province as well.

3. We are at the opening stages of another round of the inexhaustible What is Canada Will it continue to exist? Whither Quebec? debates, and I cannot for the life of me see why - aside from reckless Liberal leadership politics, and Mr. Harper's appetite for clever tactical one-upmanship - we are there.
This is a national unity debate that is entirely “constructed.” It did not spring from any crisis of events. The Bloc Québécois did not win overwhelmingly a sudden election. No fleurs-de-lys were burned in some downtown in Ontario.
Nothing precipitated this debate, except the desire for profile on the part of one Liberal leadership candidate in particular, assisted with a vengeance by a Prime Minister who determined he was going to find an issue to re-establish his party's vanishing footprint in Quebec.

If the serious separatists in Quebec are not delighted, it is only because they are still gasping at their inexplicable and unearned good luck.
Politics, and only politics - in the narrowest and most negative sense of that word - has brought this debate on. But it has begun now.Last week, having written of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, forgetful of a cliché's wisdom (a week is a long time in politics), I promised to write this week of Stéphane Dion and Gerard Kennedy. The “Quebec as a nation” debate, however, made a larger claim on the column, in my judgment. But, in short form, and out of fairness to the remaining two, here are a few thoughts.

Mr. Dion is, without qualification, the most interesting candidate. He is, to begin, the perfect model of the non-politician politician. He defies the mould. He is neither glib nor charismatic. He yokes a wonderfully clear intellect with a Mr. Magoo demeanour. He knows what he thinks and does not trim - an ancient word for “spin” -when he speaks.

He has not been handpicked by a high cabal of the party as a way of “starting the party all over again” after the tempest of the sponsorship scandal. Nor is he a late “discoverer” of the virtues of federal Liberalism. In fact, he is, of all the four putative front-runners, the only real federal Liberal in the bunch and, to his credit, underscores the fact. He is actually of the party he wishes to lead.
Mr. Dion fought the good fight in Quebec “at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable” to use Flann O'Brien's phrase. It was Mr. Dion, who after the '95 referendum wrote the famous letters on federalism, and challenged the philosophical and legal underpinnings of the referendum question.

Mr. Kennedy owes his place in this contest mainly - see Justin Trudeau's comments for illustration - because he is “young” and because he, too, like Mr. Rae and Mr. Ignatieff, is not primarily associated with the recent bad days of the federal Liberals. His handicaps are large. He is not well known outside of Ontario and, before this leadership, not profoundly a presence within it. He does look fine on camera, has an engaging disposition, and - most important - a fine air of civility.

A last thought: Is it not more than curious that three out of four candidates at the front of this race owe much of their eminent standing to the consideration that they are so “new?”

This is the great oxymoron of the Liberal leadership. Vote for us: We weren't there.

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