It didn't take long to settle any question of whether Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff's proposal to recognize Quebec as a nation in the constitution is not only divisive but also for that reason doomed to failure.
In the week after Ignatieff issued his call for boldness at the federal Liberal leadership forum in Quebec City, reaction to his proposal divided along linguistic and geographical lines.
What little encouragement Ignatieff received came mainly from French Quebec. The response from English Canada was overwhelmingly negative.
"If history be any guide," wrote Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail's widely read national affairs columnist, "recognizing Quebec as a 'nation' will split the country."
He based that prediction not only on experience of past national psychodramas over the constitution but also on more recent poll results.
In a survey conducted last month by Ekos Research Associates, only 24 per cent of Ontarians and 22 per cent of Western Canadians agreed "the Quebec people form a nation." In this province, 72 per cent agreed with the proposition.
Of particular interest is the Toronto Star's editorial on the subject, since that newspaper is closely identified with the party Ignatieff proposes to lead.
Ignatieff's "breathtaking project" to rewrite the constitution "has left more than a few Liberals wondering whether the former Harvard academic fully grasps the depth of the Canadian public's aversion to constitutional wrangling," the Star said.
The implications of recognizing not only Quebec but also aboriginal nations in the constitution, as Ignatieff proposes, were "sweeping and risky."
For one thing, international law "gives 'nations' the right to secede." The Supreme Court has said otherwise, but if the Star is mistaken, it's probably not alone.
"Far from building the (Canadian) nation" as Ignatieff proposes, "the inevitable debate could tear it apart."
As if to illustrate what to expect from such a debate, some on the other side of the question (and this side of the Ottawa River) raised the possibility that Quebec would secede if it were not recognized as a nation.
[Andre Pratte, chief editorialist of La Presse->1931] and one of the most prominent federalist voices in French Quebec, acknowledged the risks of another unsuccessful attempt at constitutional reform.
For one thing, the other provinces would not accept another "Quebec round" of negotiations on a short list of proposals presented by this province alone, as in the Meech Lake round. In the West last week, Ignatieff himself promised to change the constitution to give Alberta and British Columbia more representation in the Senate.
But Pratte also noted support for sovereignty remains at about 45 per cent in the polls, and that it is "very possible" the Parti Quebecois will be elected on a platform committing it to holding a referendum in its first term in office.
The flaw in that argument is even if Premier Jean Charest were interested in a high-stakes, long-odds gamble on constitutional reform, and even if agreement could be reached, there's not enough time to do so before the next Quebec election.
And by the time Ignatieff became prime minister, the PQ could be in power in Quebec, There would be no point in trying to negotiate reform of the Canadian constitution with a sovereignist government representing Quebec.
The director of the nationalist Le Devoir, Bernard Descoteaux, praised Ignatieff for his "fresh outlook" and not being a "defeatist," while warning him against "having the naivete to believe Quebecers will settle for vague symbols."
In fact, that might be all Ignatieff is promising them. His platform says recognition as a nation would give Quebec no new powers. And it does not say it would be used to interpret the rest of the constitution, as was recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society" in the ill-fated Meech Lake accord.
So the recognition Ignatieff proposes might very well prove to be too little for Quebec. It already appears to be too much for the rest of the country.
Reaction to Ignatieff's 'Quebec nation' idea shows how divisive it is
Quebec nationalists liked it, the West and English-speaking Canada didn't
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