Monday, December 04, 2006

Northern Exposure: Debate Over Quebec's Status in Canada Rises Anew

But This Time, Attitudes May Be Softening As Ottawa Finally Accepts What Quebecers Have Wanted All Along for Nearly 40 Years: Recognition as a 'Nation Within Canada' -- Meanwhile, PM Harper Prepares For Gay-Marriage Debate He Knows He'll Lose

CANADA'S NATIONAL UNITY PRESERVED? -- The Canadian Parliament last week overwhelmingly approved a resolution formally recognizing the French-speaking Quebecois as "a nation within a united Canada." The resolution, introduced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ruling Conservative Party, won overwhelming support from all four parties in Parliament and was hailed by most Quebecers, who, according to opinion polls, said it was a long-overdue acceptance by the federal government of what Quebecers had wanted for the last 40 years. (Image Courtesy

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Monday, December 4, 2006)


This blogger has never made any secret of my love for nearly all things Canadian. Whether it's ice hockey or Labatt beer or that wonderful joie de vivre of Quebec, every time I visit north of the border (especially for my annual August vacation), I invariably find myself reluctant to return home.

The vast majority of my nearest and dearest friends -- including an ex-partner in Montreal who had been the love of my life for 21 years -- are Canadians. More specifically, Quebecers.

So when the news broke last week that the Canadian Parliament had overwhelmingly passed a resolution recognizing the French-speaking Quebecois as "a nation within a united Canada," I certainly stood up and took notice.

The vote was the latest development in what had been Canada's longest-running melodrama: a nearly four-decade-old debate about Quebec's place in Canada. A melodrama that at its peak just over a decade ago came to within an eyelash of breaking the country apart.

Indeed, if anyone had said on the night the votes were counted in Quebec's second independence referendum in 1995 that Ottawa would finally recognize Quebecers' unique place in the Canadian fabric, they would have been laughed out of Montreal.

What a difference a decade makes. Not to mention a prime minister who hails from Western Canada.


For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it was a brilliant political masterstroke. He succeeded, at least symbolically, where his predecessors had failed: He won a 266-16 vote in the House of Commons on his resolution stating that French-speaking Quebecers "form a nation within a united Canada."

The resolution was backed by a huge majority of members of Parliament from all four major parties -- Harper's ruling Conservatives, the official opposition Liberals, the pro-independence Bloc Quebecois and the left-leaning New Democratic Party.

The issue came to a head in Parliament when Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, hoping to sow dissension in federalist ranks, proposed a motion defining Quebecers as a nation -- period. The implication was clear: A Quebec nation outside Canada.

Harper responded with a proposition of his own saying Quebecers are indeed a nation in a linguistic and cultural sense, but not a nation-state distinct from Canada.

Duceppe, after initially objecting to that formulation, did an about-face and agreed to support the Harper resolution. With the NDP and most Liberals also on board, it appeared the prime minister had scored a major political coup and outfoxed his opponents.

The resolution's passage didn't come without a price, however; it cost Harper a member of his cabinet. Intergovermental Affairs Minister Michael Chong resigned in protest, saying that he couldn't accept the "ethnic nationalism" implicit in Harper's historic initiative.

But the resolution delighted most francophone Quebecers, who, according to opinion polls, said it was a long-overdue acceptance by the federal government of what Quebecers had wanted all along.


It's also very much in keeping with a deep-rooted tradition of Canadians viewing themselves as a mosaic, or a patchwork quilt of different peoples sewn together to form modern Canada. It's a viewpoint that stands in sharp contrast to the American tradition of the United States as a "melting pot."

Unlike their neighbors south of the border, Canadians take deep pride in celebrating multiculturalism; indeed, they've done so for decades, long before the very term was ever coined.

Nonetheless, the "Quebecois nation" resolution did evoke concerns from Canada's Native peoples -- long recognized by Ottawa as Canada's First Nations -- that the resolution not put their status on the back burner.

"It is our hope that when parliamentarians rise to speak to this issue that they will state very clearly that they recognize the unique status and unique rights of First Peoples and that this motion in no way is designed to diminish those rights," said Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

"Any action that elevates the status of one segment of Canadian society over another is completely wrong. There is a real appreciation in Canada that we don't do 'nation-building' in this way."

Fontaine told the CBC he recognizes that the Quebecois have their own distinct culture and language in Canada, but that position should not supersede the equally distinct culture and languages of the First Nations, "which are also nations within a united Canada."

"What is unfortunate about this motion is the omission of any reference of the First Peoples. We should not be seen as peoples of a lesser status than others in Canada, including the Quebecois," he said.


While the resolution proved to be wildly popular with francophone Quebecers, according to opinion polls, it remains to be seen what long-term impact it will have on the Quebec debate. But it may already have had an impact on the outcome of the contest for a new Liberal Party leader.

At the Liberal Party convention in Montreal, Stephane Dion, a former cabinet minister under former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, scored a stunning upset victory Saturday night over front-runner Michael Ignatieff on the fourth ballot.

Dion, who served as intergovernmental affairs minister under Chretien and environment minister under Martin, entered the convention in fourth place among eight candidates vying to take over the Liberal Party reins from Interim Leader Bill Graham, who himself took over from Martin after the former prime minister's surprise resignation in January.

Dion became the Liberal Party's third consecutive leader from Quebec and the fourth from the French-speaking province since Pierre Elliot Trudeau won the leadership in 1967 -- and whose tenure as prime minister from the late 1960s through the late 1970s transformed Canada into the multicultural nation it is now.

Dion faces deep ambivalence from the pundits in his home province and is a virtual unknown in the rest of Canada. His upset election undoubtedly disappointed Liberals in Western Canada anxious to see a halt in what they saw as a "Quebec stranglehold" on the party's top leadership post.

The Liberal Party has governed Canada for most of the country's 128-year history -- and four of the country's last seven prime ministers have hailed from Quebec, including Conservative Brian Mulroney.


In his first news conference since winning the federal Liberal leadership, St├ęphane Dion described himself Sunday as a "proud Quebecer" who is more than just a single-issue politician. But he was immediately hammered by reporters from French-language media with repeated questions about whether he would be able to gain votes in Quebec.

Even many so-called "soft nationalists" in Quebec aren't fond of Dion, in part because he is a staunch federalist who helped author the Clarity Act, passed by Parliament after the nail-biting 1995 independence referendum, which set strict terms for negotiating Quebec's separation from Canada.

"Can you be sold in Quebec?" one reporter asked him.

"I'm very confident we'll have an excellent campaign in Quebec and we are going to convince a lot of Quebecers to elect a lot of Liberals," Dion responded.

* * *


While Harper may have scored a coup with his Quebec resolution, the Conservative prime minister is going to go ahead on his campaign promise to revisit the issue of same-gender marriage -- even though he knows that he'll lose.

Debate on a motion to reopen discussion on the law passed by the previous Liberal Party government -- with the solid backing of the Bloc and the NDP -- that legalized same-gender marriage is set to begin Wednesday, but will not directly challenge the existing law. Nonetheless, it may ask whether parliamentarians wish to repeal or amend the law.

Harper has said if the House votes against changing the law to allow same-gender marriages -- which the prime minister privately admits is a fait accompli, since his Conservatives, the only party that opposes it, are 30 seats short of a parliamentary majority -- the matter would be settled.

At his post-convention news conference, Dion made it clear that he opposed revisiting the same-sex marriage issue, but he will nonetheless discuss it with his caucus today (Monday).

"To me it's a matter of rights," he said. "It's a bad idea for the prime minister to re-open this debate and there's no need to revisit the decision of the courts."

Same-gender marriage became legal in Canada last year when Parliament passed Bill C-38 in response to a series of court rulings that gay and lesbian couples had a constitutional right to marry under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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Volume I, Number 56
Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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