Recognizing the elephant in Confederation

By adding a few simple words to a Bloc Québécois motion, Stephen Harper may have changed the course of the country

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

Now there's a turnaround. It was only on June 23, the eve of the Fête Nationale, there on the battlements of Quebec's Citadel overlooking the St. Lawrence River, that Stephen Harper stumbled when asked whether he recognized that Quebec was a nation. He would only go so far as to recognize that the National Assembly had declared that Quebec was a nation. As for himself, he chose not to pronounce himself on what he considered was only a question of semantics.
That answer was trumpeted in the Quebec news media: Prime Minister Harper refuses to recognize Quebec as a nation. It was his first setback in his campaign to seduce Quebec. Earlier in June, polls had placed the Conservatives on a par with the Bloc Québécois.

Yesterday, in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister had no trouble joining together the two words, Quebec and nation. In fact, he hammered them home, but in a new context that utterly changed the meaning and reformulated the debate: "Our position is clear. Do the Québécois form a nation within Canada? The answer is yes. Do Québécois form an independent nation? The answer is no, and the answer will always be no."

Strategically, it was a masterstroke. The Prime Minister placed this resolution on the agenda of the Commons: "That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." The decision was precipitated when, the day before, the Bloc Québécois announced the wording of its resolution that will be debated today: That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation.

The Bloc motion was canny. It was meant to embarrass the Conservatives, recalling Mr. Harper's reluctance to pronounce himself on the issue in Quebec City. It was also meant to embarrass the Liberals, whose leadership race has been polarized on the question ever since the Quebec wing voted overwhelmingly last month for a resolution, that "the Liberal Party of Canada recognizes the Quebec nation within Canada."

Liberals felt caught on the horns of a dilemma: If their convention next week rejected the resolution, the Liberals would be stigmatized as insulting Quebec and would lose ground to the Bloc. But if they adopted the resolution, they would be drubbed in the next elections in other provinces for needlessly precipitating another wrenching existential debate. The Conservatives would be the gainers.

By his motion yesterday, by his qualified acknowledgment of Quebeckers as a nation, Mr. Harper has pre-empted the debate from both the Bloc and the Liberals. To the Bloc motion, he has added the words, "within a united Canada," so curbing its separatist implications. And, unlike the Liberal motion, Mr. Harper's wording ascribes nationhood to a people, "the Québécois," rather than to a political entity, Quebec.

But, above all, the Prime Minister relocated the debate to an entirely different realm by coupling the acknowledgment of Quebeckers as a nation with that firm statement in the Commons that Quebeckers would never constitute an independent nation outside of Canada. That was new and portentous.
It was a statement that Mr. Harper was conscience-bound to make, sooner or later. As a conservative by conviction, he could not indefinitely allow Quebec politicians -- such as the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe, the PQ's André Boisclair and Premier Jean Charest -- to speak and act as though a mere majority in a future referendum would authorize Quebec to secede from Canada. The rule of law is a bedrock conservative principle and Mr. Harper had made crystal clear before and after the 1995 referendum on secession that there could be no secession without an amendment to the Constitution of Canada -- one that would require the consent of the other provinces. He had even introduced a private member's bill to that effect. In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada, in its response to the reference on secession, confirmed precisely the position taken by Mr. Harper, as opposed to the laissez-faire response of Jean Chrétien and the Liberals, whether in Ottawa or Quebec.

By making his statement now, in the context of recognizing that Quebeckers form a nation, the Prime Minister attenuates the impact of surprise and shock on a Quebec population that has been encouraged by politicians and the media to believe in the illusions that secession was a right, and that a referendum is its sufficient instrument. Moreover, Mr. Harper's contrary statement was firm and clear, but it was not part of the official motion.

By his action, Mr. Harper differentiates himself from the muddling Liberals, who yesterday morning had still been searching for a way out of their own lobster trap. Now the Liberals, and especially Michael Ignatieff, can breathe more freely. Given the context the Prime Minister has created, the Liberals can go ahead and adopt their resolution on recognizing Quebec as a nation: It has ceased to be threatening.

Yesterday's resolution comes as a prelude to a debate in the House, which could now come as early as Friday or Monday. During that debate, a further clarification must be made: What is the meaning of Quebec as a nation, and what political, legal and constitutional implications, if any, does that recognition have?

In the past, a constant ambiguity was maintained, both on the definition of nation -- or distinct society -- and on what that would imply. The Council of Europe, in a statement in January, concluded that no unambiguous definition of "nation" was possible. As for the forms of recognition for minority nations proposed by the council, Quebec already exercises more self-determination than the council proposed.

William Johnson, a former president of Alliance Quebec, is the author of Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada.

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