Par Nelson Wiseman
No one was discussing national unity four months ago. Everyone is talking about it today. Why? Has the federal government done something to outrage the province like patriating the Constitution behind its back? Have Canadians slapped Quebecers' collective face by humiliating them as they did with some of their shrill objections to the Meech Lake Accord?
Have a group of bigots stomped on the Quebec flag as was done for the benefit of TV cameras in eastern Ontario in the late 1980s? Are Quebecers being told to speak English?
What we are witnessing is a manufactured "crisis." Actually, nothing has changed in respect of the existential issue of Quebec separating from Canada.
Talk of "nation," however, is beginning to foul the political air. When that happens, the public and the media look to political leaders to respond.
That the separatists want Quebec's separation is old news. Indeed, the "nation" debate for the Conservatives is an ancient issue too; Robert Stanfield entertained the idea of "deux nations" four decades ago and the Liberals feasted on it at his expense.
Since then we have endlessly debated Quebec's "specificity," statut particulier, "distinct society," "special status," and similar formulations.
Lucien Bouchard insisted Quebecers were un people, a people, and that Canada was not a "real country."
Apparently, Quebecers are now content to be a "nation." (Note: Quebec's "First Nations" already fit the bill so they are now eligible to be a Quebec "nation," too, all the while enjoying the benefits of being part of the Canadian "nation," a member of the United Nations.
Such terms like "nation" and "distinct" mean little unless and until they are operationalized. That is, when they become a law or part of the supreme law, the Constitution.
After that, government programs, based on the wording of such a law, would take shape. Or the courts would be asked to weigh in and flesh out and define what a phrase in such a law or the Constitution meant.
Without a legal imprimatur, debates over what such terms as "nation" mean are best left for classrooms and the ivory tower, for students of semantics and armchair philosophers.
The real-life concerns of Canadians and Quebecers are quite different.
They include the quality of their children's education, access to health care, their standard of living, gridlock, and their mortgage payments among other things.
Canadians recall the trauma that "distinct society" generated and they rejected that appellation for Quebec.
But few recall that only months after the resounding verdict in the 1995 referendum, Parliament passed a bill declaring that all subsequent laws would take into account that Quebec does, indeed, constitute a "distinct society."
That law, sponsored by Jean Chrétien - a fervent opponent of the phrase just years earlier - was little noticed in or out of Quebec. It was akin to a pebble being dropped in the middle of an ocean.
Canadians and Quebecers had no energy to even think about it yet again.
They were emotionally exhausted. They had just lived through the excruciatingly high drama of the 1995 Quebec referendum.
Alas, we have someone who hasn't been living in the country for most of the past 30 years to thank for this new "crisis from nowhere."
Seeking political advantage in his race for the Liberal leadership, Michael Ignatieff unleashed a tiger.
It encouraged the Quebec federal wing of the Liberal party - the sponsors of the sponsorship scandal - to think that this "nation" formulation would revive their fortunes. This is peculiar and potentially disastrous logic. They are setting everyone up for a fall. Doing nothing is often better than doing something.
That was the key to William Lyon Mackenzie King's success, our longest-serving prime minister.
Confident in his skills as a strategic thinker, Stephen Harper has tried to one-up both the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois by recognizing Quebec as a nation within Canada.
His objective is to strengthen simultaneously Jean Charest's hand in the upcoming Quebec provincial election and to improve the melting fortunes of his own party in the province. The Conservatives are down to 12 per cent in the most recent poll. The Greens are nipping at their heels there.
Charest is repaying Harper by saluting his statesmanship, declaring that, somehow, the courts will now seriously take a parliamentary motion acknowledging that Quebec is a "nation." He is dreaming in Technicolor.
The separatists will say that the Harper motion is faulty because nationhood implies statehood. This, paradoxically, is closer to the common English understanding of the term.
Harper, the Liberals, and others will insist on the more common French connotation of the term: a people sharing a common history, language, ethnicity, and culture. The result? A distinctly Canadian take on the issue: using the French meaning of "nation" to insist on a largely English definition of Canada as one undivided state.
How will this all turn out? It will either fizzle or explode.
If the political class keeps throwing it around as a football, many in the rest of Canada will once again be upset. They will scream that, once again, Quebec's issues and not their more material and practical concerns are driving the national (oops, there's that word again) policy agenda.
If English Canadians become too boisterous in their objections, the separatists will insist that this is proof of their prejudice and insensitivity to the "reality" of Quebec.
Jacques Parizeau once likened the problem for English Canadians as a perpetual trip to the dentist. But, until Ignatieff insisted we had a toothache, we hadn't noticed.
My prescription for bringing down the temperature is that the issue deserves benign neglect. Perhaps the Harper motion will be the equivalent of a soothing Aspirin.
It will be time to engage in the issue if and when the PQ win their oft-promised, repeatedly put off, once-and-for-all referendum. Until then, why stoke it by blowing hot air in a semantic debate? The air is sufficiently foul as it is. Both the BQ and Conservative motions do nothing to clean it up.
Nelson Wiseman is a political scientist at the University of Toronto who specializes in Canadian government and politics.
Quebec's place: Here we go again
Canadians are witnessing a phony `crisis' manufactured by politicians, says Nelson Wiseman
La nation québécoise vue du Canada
Par Nelson Wiseman