By James Stairs
Montreal – In a controversial move that opponents say could eventually tear the country apart, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s move to recognize the mainly French-speaking province of Quebec as a nation passed decisively through parliament Monday.
Harper had shocked political observers last week by personally sponsoring the motion, which asked parliament to give Quebec special cultural status within the Canadian federation and led to the resignation Monday afternoon of one of his cabinet members.
The bill was approved Monday evening by a 266 to 16 margin.
The question was simple, Harper argued. “Do the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada? The answer is yes. Do the Québécois form a nation independent of Canada? The answer is no and it will always be no.”
The Conservative party motion pre-empted similar initiatives being prepared by the separatist Bloc Québécois and the opposition Liberals.
Opponents of the motion argue that, even though it is largely symbolic, the move represents an unnecessary foray into Canada’s long-simmering constitutional feud.
After the vote, Harper brushed aside the critics. “Canadians across the country said yes to Quebecers and Quebecers said yes to Canada,” he said.
Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, interpreted the result differently, telling reporters that while they were a nation within Canada now, the province would become a nation and a sovereign country in the near future.
Canada’s aboriginal communities reacted to the motion with anger. Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said that if Quebec deserves special recognition, then so do Canada’s aboriginals.
In 1995, Quebecers came within a percentage point of voting to begin negotiating separation from Canada.
As this week’s debate intensified, it became clear that for some, the wounds of the past are still fresh, as disagreement with the move was evident on both sides of the political spectrum.
Late Monday afternoon, Conservative cabinet minister Michael Chong quit in protest.
‘I believe that recognizing the Québécois as a nation, even within a united Canada, is nothing less than the recognition of an ethnic nationalism,’ he said.
Gerard Kennedy, a candidate for the open leadership position with the Liberal Party of Canada, also criticized the move.
‘This is not a small thing – this is about the identity of the country. It should not be played games with,’ Kennedy said on the eve of a party convention in Montreal.
It was one of Kennedy’s opponents for the party leadership, Michael Igantieff, who ignited the debate in October when he proposed recognizing Quebec as a nation, angering many Liberals who saw it as a rash political risk.
The events mark another chapter in the debate over Quebec’s place in Canadian confederation. About 80 per cent of the 7.65 million people in the eastern Canadian province speak French as their first language. For the majority of Canada’s remaining 25 million people, English predominates.
The province has long sought more power to defend its cultural and linguistic makeup.
Canadian federalist hardliners counter that Quebec’s different identity should not afford it special status and that the central government is capable of defending the province’s diversity.
The issue has been put to the people of Quebec twice in referendums.
In 1980 Quebecers voted by a solid majority against a proposal to redefine the relationship between the province and the country, temporarily pushing the issue out of the spotlight.
But when Canada ratified its constitution two years later, Quebec premier Rene Levesque refused to sign the document, enraged at what he saw as other provinces negotiating behind his back.
Since then, several attempts to bring the province on side have been unsuccessful.
The 1987 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord constitutional negotiations both failed spectacularly, deemed unacceptable to both Canadian and Quebec voters.
A second referendum in 1995 proved to be more acrimonious and closer than the first, with voters in the province electing to remain part of Canada by a margin of less than one per cent.
The last decade has seen the tensions between Quebec and the rest of Canada dissipate, though Quebec has still not signed on to the constitution.
Monday’s motion recognized that the Québécois form a nation on a cultural basis only.
Guy Lachapelle, secretary-general of the International Political Science Association, said that Harper’s move represented a strategic attempt to reverse the party’s lagging support in the province by acknowledging what was already a political reality.
Harper has lost electoral support in Quebec on issues like the NATO mission in Afghanistan and his government’s defiance of the Kyoto Protocol on international climate change.
Quebecers already consider themselves a nation, Lachapelle argued, and the effects of the vote will be negligible outside of swaying a handful of undecided voters.
Harper put forward the motion simply to beat his opposition to the punch. From a political point of view, it is symbolic and has no legal or constitutional implications, Lachapelle said.