The Iggy and the damage done

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

MONTREAL - Welcome to the Ignatieff nation. Having lived outside the country for the last 30 years, Michael Ignatieff may not have known what he was starting in September when he published his campaign manifesto, Agenda for Nation Building.

He said then he spoke "for all those Quebecers who say Quebec is my nation, but Canada is my country." This is a variation on an old rhetorical theme: "Le Quebec, c'est ma patrie; le Canada, c'est mon pays." Quebec is my home; Canada is my country.

A home is one thing; it's the place where you live. A nation is quite another. It generally means a people with their own language, culture, history, territory and in the case of 195 countries at the UN, political sovereignty, or nationhood.
But Ignatieff didn't mean that. He meant that Quebec was a nation in what he termed the civic sense, and said there were more than 5,000 such nations in the world, including the aboriginal first nations of Canada, whom he also said should be recognized in the Constitution.

Ignatieff pointed out that a quarter century after patriation of the Constitution with an entrenched Charter of Rights, Quebec still hadn't signed, and "until it does, our federation's architecture remains incomplete."

He added: "Ratification of a new constitution will require good faith and political will on all sides. When these conditions are in place, Canadians should be prepared to ratify the facts of our life as a country composed of distinct nations in a new constitutional document."

And he called for a new "constitutional division of powers among aboriginal, territorial, provincial and federal orders of government, with clear procedures for sharing jurisdictions that overlap; the acknowledgement of the national status of Quebec and the indigenous nations of Canada."

The guy's a writer. You have to assume he wrote this himself. It's absolutely breathtaking: Ignatieff proposes to reopen the fundamental bargain of Confederation -- the division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces in sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution.

And having said all that, including the recognition of Quebec's national status, he goes on to say that it wouldn't confer any additional powers on Quebec. In other words, it wouldn't mean anything. So, why go there?

Well, in the beginning, it was about making a good impression on Quebec delegates to the Liberal leadership convention. And Ignatieff did very well there, winning 39% of the 1,050 Quebec delegates elected on the September "super weekend."

But then, 11 days ago in Montreal, the Ignatieff forces took the nation question to an entirely different level, supporting a resolution sent to the leadership convention recognizing the "historical and social reality" of the "Quebec nation within Canada."

When it was just one front-running candidate proposing this, the only person he could blow up was himself. The moment such a resolution was sent forward for debate, it threatened to blow up the convention.

A convention held in Quebec. On the one issue that could tear the Liberal party apart. By language. By region. By the very idea of country. Quebec as a nation in the party of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien? So much for the hype of Ignatieff as the second coming of Trudeau.

And how are the Liberals supposed to sweep this issue under the carpet at their Montreal convention at month's end? They can't dump something this important into a workshop in the basement of the Palais des Congres at seven in the morning. They have to let it come to the floor. And then, what if it's defeated? What then? How humiliating would that be on Quebec's famous scale of humiliation? How humiliating would it be for Ignatieff?

And the question is, what did the Ignatieff camp think they would get out of this? They already had everything they were going to get in terms of elected Quebec delegates. The automatic or ex-officio delegates, the party pros, only care about winnability. The main factor there is always the leader's judgment. The question is always: Will this guy get us into trouble?

In Ignatieff's case, the answer is clearly yes. He has already got the party, and the country, in trouble. Let's put it this way: When former Parti Quebecois leader Bernard Landry is endorsing your vision of Canada, that's not necessarily a good day for the country.

Inevitably, Prime Minister Stephen Harper got dragged into this mess the other day when he was asked if he regarded Quebec as a nation. He replied, very carefully that "Quebec is an indispensable part of Canada."

This means exactly the same thing in French as it does in English. And it says everything that needs to be said: Without Quebec, there is no Canada as we know it. On the other hand, re-opening the Constitution to recognize Quebec as a nation is a certain recipe for constitutional chaos.

And you thought the 1990 Liberal convention in Calgary, on the weekend Meech Lake died, was a donnybrook. It will be nothing compared to the brawl in Montreal.

- L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy Options, the magazine of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

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