Quebec the elephant at Liberal convention

Oh no, you don't get off that easily. A train wreck we were promised, and a train wreck we will have.

Course à la chefferie du PLC

Monday's parliamentary vote awarding "the Quebecois" -- or as we say in French, "les Quebecers" -- the laurel wreath of nationhood may appear to have saved the Liberals from a messy cat fight over the same question. A resolution committing the party to "officialize" the entire province as a nation that was to have come up for debate at this week's leadership convention has now been set to one side, on grounds of redundancy.

But I and several hundred of my media brethren, many with families to support, have not come all this way to Montreal just to watch the Grits kiss and make up. And in truth, the party cannot avoid this debate. Quebec, and the national question, hangs over this Liberal convention like a guilty conscience. The resolution is unnecessary, not because Parliament has already pronounced upon it, but because at least one candidate for leader is committed to going even further: to entrenching Quebec's national status, not just in a parliamentary motion, but in the Constitution.

The leadership vote, accordingly, is a proxy for how delegates see the country, and Quebec's place in it.

I say "at least" one, because although Michael Ignatieff has taken the most credit -- and the most flak -- for raising the subject, the positions of the other candidates are for the most part not so much opposed as shaded. Mr. Ignatieff himself insists he is not proposing constitutional changes now, but only "when the time is right," i.e. when Canadians come to their senses. (Mr. Ignatieff defends his proposal on the grounds that he is only "recognizing a fact," namely that Quebecers see themselves that way. That millions of Canadians, including many Quebecers, see things entirely differently is strangely not a fact to be recognized, but merely waited out.)

That is perhaps to be distinguished from Bob Rae's position, which is that constitutional recognition of Quebec as a nation is "something we should be doing," only not "at this point in time" -- but it's a mighty near thing. As for Stephane Dion, he agrees that constitutional recognition of Quebec as a nation would be "desirable," but that it is not "necessary," and that before any such attempt is made its meaning and purpose should be made clear. That's a few degrees further from Mr. Ignatieff's position than Mr. Rae's is, but not more than that. The nuances are exquisite, allowing each to tailor his appeal to different quarters of the party, or at any rate covering them from outright attack.
Of the four candidates in a position to win, the one who comes closest to flat-out opposition to the idea is Gerard Kennedy. Though he has said that he believes Quebecers are a nation, in the sociological sense, he has attached the fewest hedges to his reluctance to go the constitutional route. And with his decision, late last week, to come out foursquare against the resolution before the Commons, he has emerged as the champion of the party's Trudeau wing (including an authentic Trudeau or two, plus the redoubtable Tom Axworthy, Mr. Trudeau's principal advisor), the only one of the four leading candidates to say he would vote against it. Indeed, by their own decisions to vote against the resolution Monday, Ken Dryden and Joe Volpe may have signalled where they will throw their support at the convention.

If Mr. Ignatieff occupies one pole in this debate, then, Mr. Kennedy does the other. If Mr. Ignatieff's recklessness made it likely the national question would dominate the convention, Mr. Kennedy's boldness has assured it. Where does that leave Mr. Dion and Mr. Rae? Both supported the parliamentary resolution when it was first introduced -- indeed, Mr. Dion, in a decision he may come to regret, co-authored it -- but both backed away from it over the weekend, perhaps as the misgivings of grassroots Liberals became clear: Mr. Dion said it was not his "priority," Mr. Rae that he would not have introduced such a motion had he been prime minister. Mr. Kennedy having planted his standard at one end of the pitch, will they now be forced to move toward him? Or does he give them more room to run up the middle, as the compromise candidates?

Mr. Dion's dilemma is perhaps the more acute. Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Dion are in a close race for third place on the first ballot. Is there a risk Mr. Kennedy's championing of One Canada will attract more delegates his way on the second and third ballots, lifting him clear of Mr. Dion and forcing the former undisputed champion of national unity to drop out? If so, then Mr. Dion has a decision to make.

No one should mistake Mr. Dion for a Trudeauite: He was pro-Meech Lake, he supports Bill 101, and he is as protective of provincial jurisdictions as any Quebec nationalist. But the "nation" debate has jangled nerves and hurt feelings. Dangerous forces have been unleashed; there is a sense, with a Quebec election in the offing, that the country is in play, perhaps as never before. Forget separation: the greater risk is of a slow evisceration, a hollowing out from within.

From here on, the pressure will be relentless for a devolution of the powers appropriate to a nation. The other provinces will, as always, use Quebec's demands as pretexts for their own. Many Liberals will be looking for the candidate who can withstand these demands; who will defend, not just the unity of the country, but its integrity; who will uphold a meaningful role for the federal government, as the only government of all the people; who will speak of Canada as a nation.

Should the convention be swept by a wave of Canada-first emotion, Mr. Dion will have to display, not only his trademark precision and competence, but passion; and not only passion, but vision.

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