Ignatieff's quote on Quebec separation sparks strong reaction

Quebec Premier Jean Charest is among those reacting with surprise today at remarks from ex-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who suggested in a BBC interview that Quebec and Canada are almost two separate countries.

Former Liberal leader told Scottish BBC that "eventually" Quebec may be headed for independence

Michael Ignatieff says he still believes in a united Canada.

9 years ago
Catherine Cullen reports on political storm around former Liberal leader's comments to BBC. 2:58

Is Quebec steadily drifting towards independence? That's apparently news to Premier Jean Charest.

There are some surprised reactions to remarks from Michael Ignatieff, the former federal Liberal leader who suggested in a BBC interview that Quebec and Canada are almost two separate countries floating towards a breakup.

That suggestion is being met with resistance from Quebecers who have fought for national unity.

Ignatieff responds

Excerpts from a statement provided to CBC News:

"The interview on the issue of the referendum on Scottish independence made clear that Canada offers an internationally recognized model for the conciliation of political differences. I also shared my concerns about the future of this country: we must not drift apart and we must not allow illusions about each other to divide us. Canada is bigger than our differences. We need to affirm our faith in a country that has always proved strong enough to embrace the national identities, language and culture of us all."

"I oppose the separation of Canada and Quebec, as I oppose the separation of Scotland and the United Kingdom, and we need to face any threats to our unity with determination and resolve. The argument we need to make to our fellow citizens who choose the separatist option ought to appeal to hope rather than fear. We are stronger together than apart, stronger in the embrace of our differences and stronger in the prosperous life we have built together over the centuries."

"What I will tell you is a strong majority of Quebecers believe in Canada," Charest told reporters in Montreal on Tuesday.

He agreed with Ignatieff — that the country is a decentralized federation — and said "important progress" has been made on that score since he took office nine years ago. But he said he hadn't heard Ignatieff's interview so he wouldn't comment further.

Sovereignty at low ebb in poll

A poll on Quebecers' attitudes, coincidentally, appears in Tuesday morning's Montreal La Presse.

The poll pegs support for independence at 36 per cent — well below the historic highs of the early 1990s and even lower than the level in the first sovereignty referendum, more than three decades ago.

The CROP online poll of 1,000 Quebecers was conducted from April 18 to 23.

Sovereigntist political parties, meanwhile, have fared better in recent polling.

The Parti Québécois has rebounded from near oblivion to the lead in recent political voting preference numbers, suggesting the sovereigntist party led by Pauline Marois once again has a shot at government as Charest's Liberals struggle to shake off corruption allegations.

And recent surveys of federal voting intentions in Quebec also suggest the Bloc Québécois is rebounding among federal parties in the province, leading or only narrowly trailing the NDP, although not demonstrating its previous dominance.

Ignatieff calls headlines 'strange'

Ignatieff, meanwhile, took to his Facebook and Twitter pages to suggest he had been misinterpreted.

Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has caused a stir by suggesting to a Scottish BBC interviewer that Canada and Quebec were almost two separate countries, and that eventually Quebec could move toward independence. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"Strange headlines this morning! Quebec-Canada, tous ensemble, always together," the ex-Liberal leader and academic wrote on Twitter.

He posted a link to the entire BBC interview and asked people to listen to it for its full context. In that interview, he warned his U.K. audience that whatever happens in the upcoming Scottish referendum, the country will change as a result.

He pointed to Quebec and Canada as an example, suggesting that the sense of unity of his youth has given way to two quasi-separate countries that have nothing to say to each other. He said the inevitable logic of that trend is independence, for both Quebec and Scotland.

In a statement sent to CBC News, Ignatieff acknowledged that his remarks "taken out of context" have "caused some distress to federalist friends across the country, both Francophone and Anglophone."

"Since I passionately want Quebec to remain part of the Canadian fabric, and since these friends have defended this idea with courage and pride, it causes me pain to think that anything I said could be used against a cause—the national unity of my country—that they and I hold dear," Ignatieff wrote.

The former Liberal party leader went on to say he would "never betray the cause that we share."

Dion downplays 'moments of doubt'

The remarks prompted a gleeful response from Quebec sovereigntists Tuesday.

But federalists in Quebec City and Ottawa worked to downplay them.

Key among them was another ex-Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion, who worked in the unity trenches in the 1990s when he was the Chrétien government's point man on the Quebec-Canada question.

Dion said in a French-language interview that Canadians will always argue about things like whether the country is too decentralized, or not decentralized enough — and, in the meantime, Canada will continue to work.

Dion said Ignatieff was simply voicing frustrations that everyone in the country feels from time to time. But he said the end result of sticking together is worth it.

"We all have moments of doubt, and that happens. We say maybe we won't make it work. But at the end of the day, we roll up our sleeves, and we work together," Dion told the all-news network of Radio-Canada, the French-language CBC.

"Canada is a complex, a very diverse country — very original — which invents solutions that other countries subsequently copy, like our Charter of Rights for example.

"We must continue to do it. We're an inspiration to the entire world. We can't destroy the Canada that exists on this planet. Humanity needs it too much."

Dion said political differences in the country — such as regional ones pitting East against West — are greatly exaggerated and magnified by Canada's electoral system.

He said the first-past-the-post system hides the fact that many Albertans, for instance, are left-leaning while many Quebecers lean right.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Heritage Minister James Moore criticized interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae for not denouncing his predecessor, calling the remarks an "arrogant, narcissistic and irresponsible position" for the Liberals to take.

Moore also reminded reporters of equally-controversial remarks made by Liberal MP Justin Trudeau earlier this year, when he suggested that if Canada became more like "Stephen Harper's Canada" he would "think about maybe wanting to make Quebec a country."

With files from CBC News