When wooing Quebec, all roads lead to Meech

Some people may not agree that Quebec is a 'nation,' or that it is the only one in Canada

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

The blackmail has already begun. On the weekend, the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal party passed a resolution calling for Quebec to be recognized as a nation within Canada. Not a "distinct society" -- a nation. "A veritable revolution in the federalist philosophy of Pierre Trudeau's heirs," André Pratte wrote in La Presse. But he warned, "every audacity carries a risk."

The resolution of the Quebec wing will face a vote at the Liberals' national convention in December. Some people may not agree that Quebec is a nation, or that it is the only one in Canada, or that only a Québécois nation exists on Quebec's territory. Those people mustn't be allowed to carry the day, Pratte wrote. "Quebec's federal Liberals must at all costs avoid letting the resolution be defeated at the Montreal convention. That would be perceived as an affront to Quebec."

The blackmail is as unmistakable as it is genteel and well-intentioned. It always is. Here we are, back at Meech Lake, and it didn't take long at all.
The problem with Meech, as those of us who were in the country in 1989 and 1990 will recall, was not that it sought to recognize Quebec's "distinct society." It's that Meech's supporters sold it as an attempt to render Canada acceptable to Quebec -- an attempt that, if it failed, would demonstrate Canada's unsuitability for Quebecers. So the serious business of a serious country got put on hold for three years while the country's constitutional industry attempted to thread an impossible needle. In French they swore that "recognition" would heal the gnawing uncertainty in Quebecers' hearts. In English they said it would mean nothing.

Michael Ignatieff, the sorcerer's apprentice who restarted this debate, has been working overtime to thread the same needle. After the weekend meeting of the Liberals' Quebec wing, he basked in the best reviews he has ever enjoyed from my Quebec colleagues, for his "openness." "Michael Ignatieff sealed his Quebec advantage," Chantal Hébert wrote in Le Devoir. "He will arrive at the convention at the head of the largest Quebec delegation and as champion of a concept whose support in Quebec largely exceeds the ranks of his own partisans."

In La Presse, Vincent Marissal wrote that unlike Ignatieff, poor Stéphane Dion "wasn't able to respond to the pressing need for renewal among members of the Liberal Party of Canada."
But you know, it's a funny thing. In English, I'm being told Ignatieff's policy is meaningless. Stephen Owen, a Liberal MP in British Columbia, told the CBC that recognizing Quebec as a nation would mean "absolutely nothing" to the nation's -- oops, sorry, I mean Canada's -- governance.

And here's an email in my inbox from Brad Davis, Ignatieff's "national director of policy and Internet strategy." "Both [Bob] Rae and Dion have said constitutional talks are possibly in our future," Davis writes. "Ignatieff has said the same."

Well, which is it? Is Ignatieff reaping rewards for a unique openness to Quebec's reality, or is he saying "the same" as his opponents? And when Quebecers finally learn the answer to that question, will that be a good day for Canada?

Let's pause for some reluctant autobiography. I've become a bit of an Ignatieff critic. It happened late and I don't like it. Continually taking issue with one candidate's positions is boring and repetitive. But I am stuck with the material, and the incoherence in the sales job for Ignatieff's constitutional policy is not a superficial matter of spin. It's inherent in Ignatieff's thinking. "To recognize Quebec -- and Aboriginal peoples -- as nations within the fabric of Canada is not to make some new concession," Ignatieff writes in his policy book. "Nor is it a prelude to further devolution of powers." And then, a page later, he writes that after some undefined period of, what, negotiation or meditation or something, Canadians will be invited to ratify "a new constitution... The details that must be reconciled in a constitutional settlement are complex..."

So identifying Quebec and -- one? Six? Nineteen? -- Aboriginal nations won't be a prelude to anything except a new constitution. In this as on so many files (Qana: war crime or bad luck?), I face Michael Ignatieff, armed only with his writings and statements. It is an unfair advantage. He doesn't stand a chance.

Other provinces must ratify constitutional change. If one of the premiers, outside Quebec, thinks it is time to recognize the Quebec nation in the Constitution, let him write to me and I will give him this page in next week's Maclean's. Without that consensus, we are headed straight for Pratte's "affront to Quebec." The motion will fail at the Liberal convention, or it won't be in a Liberal platform, or it won't become Liberal government policy, or it will become policy and fail. Whenever the day comes, one hopes Michael Ignatieff will be around to collect the thanks of a grateful nation. Or two.

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