Quebec a 'nation?' Be careful what you wish for

The existential issues around Canadian unity are fraught with dangers, traps, misunderstandings and snares

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently told a prominent Canadian, privately, that he had to help Quebec Liberal Premier Jean Charest win the next provincial election.

It was important to avoid a victory for the Parti Québécois, the Prime Minister explained to his guest, without indicating just how he would help Mr. Charest.
This week, Mr. Harper took the Quebec Liberals' demand that the province be recognized as a “nation” within Canada and adapted it to his own position that the Québécois constitute a nation within Canada.
In so doing, Mr. Harper wished to assist Mr. Charest's re-election prospects and his own party's, which depend on winning more seats in Quebec.

Having shown a tin ear to Quebec on same-sex marriage, the Middle East and climate change, thereby suffering a political meltdown in the province, the Prime Minister was obviously looking for a way to help his Conservatives curry favour.

Four months ago, in Quebec City, Mr. Harper refused to countenance such a proposition as put forward this week. The idea of a Quebec “nation,” he said, was a matter of semantics and not very important.

Now, however, this new description will become an expression of the will of Parliament, courtesy of Mr. Harper and support from the confused and divided Liberals and the NDP that long ago bought the idea of asymmetrical federalism, wherein Quebec would enjoy widespread special arrangements.

Predictably, Mr. Charest greeted Mr. Harper's turnabout with enthusiasm, claiming it would cement Canadian unity. But will it? In the short term, yes, if the gesture assists Mr. Charest's re-election. The longer-term consequences are another matter, because either the description of the Québécois as a “nation” within a united Canada means something, or it does not.

If the description means little or nothing, then why bother with it? Why play with words that are capable of being differently interpreted? (The resolution speaks of Québécois, or French-speaking Quebeckers. Others, like Mr. Charest, speak of Quebec as a nation, and the two ideas are not the same. But the distinction will likely be forgotten.)

Why create confusion? Why invite Mr. Charest, to say nothing of secessionists, to use the phrase to buttress demands for yet further powers or, in extremis, the political status of a state?

If the resolution means something, what does it mean?
A nation, after all, can be defined in a narrow sociological sense, which is the way this one is ostensibly intended. But it can also be defined in a political sense, as in member-countries of the United Nations.

Organizations in Canada, as in other countries, are called “national” because they bring together members from all parts of the nation, or country. O Canada is the “national” anthem.

And if Quebec is a “nation,” in the classic Ernest Renan sense of a people who have done great things together and wish to do more of the same in the future, does that mean that there can be no Canadian “nation” in that sense of the word?

Which is to ask that, if this resolution means something - as opposed to reflecting ephemeral political tactics - what does it mean? Neither the Prime Minister nor his opposition supporters could say.

If this manoeuvre does mean something, or will mean something, it did not say much for Parliament or statesmanship for a Prime Minister and the other parties to rush into something with potentially serious consequences on a few hours' notice, because elementary knowledge of Canadian history indicates that existential issues around Canadian unity are fraught with dangers, traps, misunderstandings and snares.

But if the manoeuvre does not mean anything, that lack of substance will be sorely disappointing for those who really do invest in the resolution hope, ambitions and future constitutional demands.

In the aftermath of the 1995 Quebec referendum, prime minister Jean Chrétien pushed through Parliament a motion recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society.” The resolution had no constitutional force or effect, and was quickly forgotten.

Perhaps a rapid irrelevance will be the fate for this week's resolution, although the word “nation” is far more loaded with potential political meaning and existential baggage than “distinct society.”

Mr. Harper has therefore made it much more likely that Canadian federalism will become even more asymmetrical: What had been a maximal demand for change - the recognition of Quebec's status as a “nation” - will now become a minimalist one.

Although certainly not the principal reason for Mr. Harper's about-face, the resolution's arrival on the eve of the Liberal convention could not have escaped his calculations.

The party's Quebec wing, and candidate Michael Ignatieff, had dropped this issue in the Liberals' midst, including the initial suggestion that Quebec as a “nation” be enshrined in the Constitution.

Mr. Ignatieff, whose initial position had split the party, is basking in the satisfaction that the Prime Minister has come around to his own recently amended position on Quebec as a nation within Canada.

The satisfaction is mutual. The Conservatives will be quietly delighted if this week's manoeuvrings help Mr. Ignatieff by defusing the internal controversy he ignited, because most outside Quebec, having watched his leadership campaign unfold, have concluded that he would be the easiest Liberal to beat.
Anything that helps him, they think, helps them.

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