Prime Minister Stephen Harper has waded into the controversial issue of Quebec nationhood, saying he will introduce a motion recognizing that Quebecers form a nation "within a united Canada."
"Our position is clear. Do the Québécois form a nation within Canada? The answer is yes. Do the Québécois form an independent nation? The answer is no and the answer will always be no," Harper told the House on Wednesday.
Harper's motion — which states that "this House recognizes that Québécois form a nation within a united Canada —was prompted to defuse a Bloc Québécois motion to be debated Thursday.The Bloc motion calls for Quebec to be recognized as a nation but does not include the words "in Canada."
Harper said the issue of Quebec's nationhood should not be decided by the federal government but by the Quebec legislation. However, he said the Bloc has forced the government to take a position.
"The Bloc Québécois has asked us to define this, and perhaps that's a good thing because it reminds us that all Canadians have a say in the future of this country," Harper said.
The Tories had earlier said they will oppose the Bloc motion. Some Liberals had said they'll support it because they believe it merely states the obvious.
But others warned that it was too vague and open to interpretation.
Harper said the intent of the Bloc motion is clear: "It's not to recognize what Quebecers are, but what sovereigntists would like them to be.
"For the Bloc, it's not a matter of Quebec as a nation— the National Assembly has already pronounced itself on that. It's about separation. For them, 'nation' means 'separation."'
Quebec issue has divided Liberal leadership race
Michael Ignatieff said he was "gratified" by the proposal. The Liberal leadership contender has received criticism over his position that Quebecers' language, history, culture and territory mark "them out as a separate people" who should be recognized as a nation.
In his platform, he also said that recognition, as well as the recognition of First Nations, should eventually be enshrined in the Constitution.
"I'm sure that Mr. Harper is not in the business of throwing me any life jackets at all," Ignatieff said.
"You'll have to ask the other candidates in the race how they'll react," he added.
Bob Rae and Stéphane Dion are among the leadership candidates who have argued against the position.
Rae said the party shouldn't reopen constitutional questions and Dion has said the province's status is a "symbolic" question and shouldn't divert attention from real issues.
The long-simmering issue first hit the headlines again in October, when the Quebec wing of the federal Liberal party voted to recognize Quebec as a nation in Canada.
It immediately caused controversy within the party, as various Liberal leadership contenders either weighed in onthematter or urged party members not to let it dominate the race before the December convention.
Earlier Wednesday, interim Liberal leader Bill Graham met with the leadership contenders to try to settle the issue of Quebec's nationhood among them, but nothing was resolved.
Liberals suggest they'll support government's motion
Graham indicated his party would support the prime minister's motion in the House, saying they will work to "adopt a solution that respects Quebec and Quebecers."
"It is the duty of members of this House to give them that hope; it is the duty for us to transcend whatever partisan ambitions we have in order to inspire not only Canadians but [also] other people in the world."
He said later that his MPs will meet Thursday to discuss the motion and he expressed confidence they will unite behind it. But at least one, Jim Karygiannis, said he would oppose it.
NDP Leader Jack Layton said his party would support both the government and the Bloc motions.
But Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe rejected Harper's motion on Quebec's nationhood outright, saying it meant Quebecers would only be recognized as a nation if they stayed within Canada.