Canadian Prime Minister Is Ready to Loosen Federal Ties to Quebec

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Nov 23 14:47:34 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes, November 23, 2006

Canadian Prime Minister Is Ready to Loosen Federal Ties to Quebec


TORONTO, Nov. 22 Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed Wednesday that
Quebecers be recognized as a nation within Canada, injecting himself into
a growing debate over how to distinguish the relationship between the
French-speaking province and the rest of the predominantly
English-speaking country. The surprise motion by Mr. Harper and his
Conservative Party hinges on a battle between separatist and federalist
politicians over four words, within a united Canada. On Tuesday the
separatist Bloc Qubcois announced plans to introduce a motion on Thursday
in the House of Commons that would recognize Quebec as a nation.

Mr. Harper tried to pre-empt that motion by introducing a measure of his
own, with the same wording but adding within a united Canada at the end.
The leaders of both federalist parties in opposition, the Liberal Party
and the New Democratic Party, support Mr. Harpers proposal. Mr. Harper
said those four words were meant to prevent separatists from using the
motion to promote their cause. Do Quebecers form a nation within a united
Canada? The answer is yes, he said in the House of Commons. Do the Qubcois
form an independent nation?  The answer is no, and always will be no.

Mr. Harper said the issue of Quebec nationhood should be left to the
provincial government but argued that the Bloc Qubcois had forced the
central government to weigh in. The prime minister is trying to position
his Conservative Party as the federalist alternative in Quebec as his
minority government pushes for a majority in the next election, which
could come as early as the spring. The debate over nationhood largely
dates back to Quebecs refusal to sign the Canadian Constitution in 1982.
Since then there have been two failed attempts to amend the document to
the provinces liking.

Canadian politicians have typically been wary of discussing Quebecs role
within Canada because of the tenuous stability that has been established
in the province since the last referendum on separation was narrowly
defeated in 1995. Since then a federalist Liberal provincial premier, Jean
Charest, has been elected. But an election could return the separatist
Parti Qubcois to power, and the party has pledged to hold another
referendum if it wins. Critics say that the concept of recognizing Quebec
as a nation in one sense, a separate people though not an independent
state may have short-term benefits for federalist politicians but that
separatists in Quebec will use the distinction to push for increased
recognition of Quebec as a state that is separate from the rest of Canada.

Harper will rue the day he went down this road, said Michael Behiels, a
historian at the University of Ottawa. The Bloc Qubcois will exploit this
to no end. During its 13 years in power, until January of this year, the
Liberal Party successfully positioned itself as the alternative for
federalist voters in Quebec who did not want to support the Bloc Qubcois.
Mr. Harper is trying to fill that role because the Liberal Party was
weakened by its election loss and the resignation of its leader, Paul

The debate over Quebec nationhood could reach a crucial point when the
Liberal Party votes for a new leader on Dec. 2. Michael Ignatieff, the
front-runner, is the only candidate supporting a party resolution to
recognize the Quebec nation within Canada. He has cited Quebec's language,
history, culture and territory. His opponents argue that re-opening the
debate only provides a venue for separatist leaders.


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