When Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons to present a motion that recognizes "the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada," it was an historic moment. Despite the confusion about who exactly is being addressed as "Québécois" and what is meant by the term nation (as opposed to a sovereign state), the recognition of the inhabitants of Quebec as forming a distinct collectivity is inevitable.
If the motion means Quebecers form a distinct community within Canada, and if we take care to avoid the ethnicization of the concept of nation, then the resolution states the obvious. The "nation," if it pertains to all Quebecers, is already evident in many aspects of their lives, from voting for representatives to the Assemblée nationale, referring to Quebec City as la Capitale nationale, and in many other important civic institutions.
Unlike in any other province, the political attitudes of Quebecers are not only defined along a left-right socio-economic axis, but are superimposed by another dimension, that of appartenance to Quebec or Canada as the primary point of reference for their national identity.
For those whose "nation" is Canada first, or who consider themselves exclusively Canadian, federalism remains the only political option, whatever its form. But for the vast majority of francophone Quebecers, whose point of attachment may be Quebec exclusively, Quebec first, or even Quebec and Canada equally, the political options are more complex, spanning a spectrum in which preferences range from sovereignty to various forms of federal arrangement.
The Prime Minister's motion is reaching out to Quebecers on that political spectrum and indicating that it is possible to retain an attachment to their "national" identity while continuing to reside within the Canadian firmament.
In other words, and in stark contrast to the Liberal party under Jean Chrétien or the referendum choices put forward by the Parti Québécois, the motion suggests Quebecers may not have to choose between Quebec and Canada. This does little to clarify the obscurity surrounding the real issues of political autonomy. But for most Quebecers, at least in the short term, it is a welcome reprieve.
From Harper, it is a radical change from his Reformer days, but in sync with the "open federalism" he has been preaching in Quebec. The political strategy is obvious: After a season of missteps in Quebec on foreign policy and environmental issues, Harper needs to make Quebecers more receptive to the Conservatives in time for the next federal election.
The political imperatives are likewise obvious. The move was designed to take the wind out of the Bloc Québécois's own motion on Quebec and to expose the Liberal party's infighting on the matter.
But in the long run, it is a gamble that may expose deeper divisions.
As Brian Mulroney found, the alliance between western sensibilities and Quebec nationalism is uneasy and potentially explosive. Then as now, the real issue is not "buying" Quebecers' allegiance to Canada, but rather the extent to which Canadians can "buy into" Quebec's vision of political autonomy within Canada.
Antonia Maioni is director of the McGill Institute for the Study of