Words matter, former U.S. secretary of state George Schultz would say, as he went about the arduous task of securing recognition of Israel by the Palestine Liberation Organization (as a precondition for peace negotiations). And though, thankfully, our situation in North America is infinitely more peaceful, words matter no less in the complex relations between English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians, the majority of whom live in Quebec.
It's to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's credit that he found words to head off a potential crisis brought on by a reckless Liberal leadership candidate, Michael Ignatieff, and the wily leader of the Bloc Québécois, Gilles Duceppe. Had he done nothing, as Saskatchewan Premier Lorne Calvert churlishly suggested the day after Mr. Harper tabled his motion, a vote on a Bloc resolution recognizing that “Quebeckers form a nation” could have cost Mr. Harper his government in the next election - if not immediately - and could have cost the country a full-blown unity crisis following the next Quebec election.
Though most of the commentary on Mr. Harper's resolution stressed the importance of the words “within a united Canada,” that addition to the “Québécois form a nation” motion had little value other than to upset, temporarily, Mr. Duceppe who, on the future of Quebec in Canada, is always worth upsetting. If Mr. Harper's core supporters in Alberta were somehow mollified by the smoke he was blowing, so much the better.
In the old days, a favourite trick of Canadian politicians was to say one thing in French and another in English. Happily, in the era of 24-hour news cycles and bilingual journalists, this practice is showing diminishing returns. After Mr. Harper tabled his motion, however, few people cottoned on to his interesting variation on the theme: Whereas the English text of the Bloc motion refers to “Quebeckers,” the Conservatives used “Québécois” in both versions. Those who, like Mr. Duceppe last summer, demanded to know why the government was prepared to recognize aboriginals but not the Québécois as a nation, got what they had asked for, in spades.
Of course, Mr. Harper has not gone out of his way to explain that the term Québécois does not apply to all residents of Quebec, as Lysiane Gagnon pointed out in these pages a couple of weeks ago. Nor has he tried to clear up the tendency of Premier Jean Charest, and the reporters covering him, to assert that Canada will be recognizing the Quebec nation, the formulation proposed both by Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberal Party's Quebec wing that would have given such recognition a territorial dimension.
In fairness, Mr. Harper, aside from his own political interests, is interested in the re-election of the Charest government. However, even in that scenario, the ambiguities Mr. Harper is allowing to circulate could have negative consequences for Canada. For, though it's unlikely that the courts would make use of the words contained in the motion he presented last week, there's no doubt they will be used by future Quebec governments as a platform to demand additional powers, be it through administrative or constitutional means.
Those who were breathing easier as a result of the four words “within a united Canada,” were likely shaken by the news on Friday that the Bloc will support Mr. Harper's motion. They should also reflect on the interpretation Mr. Charest will be able to give these words, as set out in an interview he gave to France's l'Express in July. “There's no doubt we are a people and a nation,” Mr. Charest told the interviewer. “And I see no contradiction in the fact that we Québécois are also Canadians, as the French are French but also Europeans. ... Where the Quebec identity is concerned, there is a consensus between Quebec sovereigntists and federalists.”
Simply put, Quebeckers, even federalist Quebeckers, reject the notion that their province is like the others. They consider that their government, as the only representative of a French-speaking majority in North America, should be viewed as a state federated with “English Canada.”
Forty years ago, two ascending provincial Liberals who later became premiers, René Lévesque and Robert Bourassa, split not so much over the vision, but over whether you had to break up Canada, with all the attendant costs, to get there.
Politicians will be politicians, I suppose, and Mr. Harper is staring a spring election in the face. Still, as Prime Minister, it's his responsibility to state clearly, in French, that the Québécois are also part of the Canadian nation, and that the government he leads in Ottawa is their national government, too.