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In Depth

Liberal Party

The issues: Quebec and national unity

Last Updated November 28, 2006

The next Liberal leader will be marching into Quebec in the next federal election with a different set of battle plans than those seen in recent history. No longer is the battle for votes and ridings just against the Bloc Qu�b�cois. For the first time in years, the dormant debate on national unity has resurfaced.

Less than two weeks before the leadership convention, Quebec's status in Canada gained a new national significance. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's hand was forced by the Bloc and he put forward a motion that the Québécois be recognized as a "nation" within a united Canada.

The Liberals have had a role to play in reigniting the debate. Leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff highlighted the issue of "nation" status and constitutional reform in his campaign. Then, in October, the Quebec wing of the federal Liberals passed a motion that called upon the party to recognize Quebec as a nation, a move that threatened to cause divisions among the front-runners.

Delegates won in Quebec
Candidate % (delegates)
Michael Ignatieff 38.9% (401)
Stéphane Dion 28.3% (292)
Bob Rae 24% (248)
Joe Volpe 3% (31)
Gerard Kennedy 1.8% (19)
Scott Brison 1.6% (16)
Ken Dryden 1.1% (11)
Martha Hall Findlay 0.1% (1)
Undeclared 1.1% (13)
All delegates  

The Liberals had been the federalist voice in Quebec ever since the Progressive Conservatives were decimated in 1993, but no more. In the last election, the Liberals were left with 13 seats, down from 21, and the culprit wasn't the Bloc. It was Stephen Harper's Conservatives, who picked up 24.6 per cent of the vote and 10 seats.

So who will lead the Liberals into the charge in Quebec? The front-runners in the Liberal leadership race provide ample choice: A hard-line federalist Quebecer, a former Ontario premier who fought for the Charlottetown accord, a neophyte politician who is willing to drag the Constitution back into the spotlight, and a relative unknown who spent the summer polishing up his French skills.

In the race for delegates in the province, Michael Ignatieff snapped up the most representatives, with 37.6 per cent, Stéphane Dion grabbed 29.3 per cent and Bob Rae got 23.4 per cent of the delegates. And although Gerard Kennedy has 17 per cent of the delegates in Canada, he got barely any support in Quebec, with 1.7 per cent of the delegates.

In the debates and speeches leading up to the vote, there seem to be three lines of thinking when it comes to Quebec, especially with unity and federalism. The government motion on the Québécois nation has forced the top contenders to show their hands. One approach, taken by two front runners, is to tread lightly and use the soft diplomatic approach. The second is to reject the motion. The third is to charge into the province and stir the pot.

Stir the pot

Michael Ignatieff separated himself from the other Liberal contenders, wading into the murky and dangerous waters when he brought up the word "nation" and "constitution" in talking about Quebec. Before Harper introduced the "nation" motion in the House, Ignatieff was openly supportive of the calls from the federal Liberals' Quebec wing. He said his "candidacy listened to Quebec" and denied Harper was helping him by wading into the debate. Ignatieff voted for the government motion on the Québécois.

In a document that showcases his vision of Canada, he said that unless Quebec signs on to the Constitution, "our federation's architecture remains unfinished. Canadians should be prepared to ratify the facts of our life as a country composed of distinct nations in a new constitutional document."

A few days later, he continued: "It is time we recognized the specificity of Quebec within the Canadian federation. Recognizing Quebec as a nation within the fabric of Canada is not to make some new concession. It is simply to acknowledge a fact."

His comments brought criticism that he was naive about Canadian politics and that any talk of "constitution" and "nation" would only serve to ignite old tensions. Later, he clarified his remarks, saying that "when the conditions are right," political parties should revisit the concept of nation within the Constitution. Nevertheless, his point was made. In one of his speeches, Ignatieff referred to Quebec as a "cornerstone of the Canadian federation," and made it clear that both Ottawa and Quebec each have their jurisdictions and both should be respected.

Stay the course

In the last federal election Stéphane Dion was one of the survivors, as many star cabinet members were defeated. In the leadership race, Dion is the sole candidate (and Quebecer) who has had to deal with the unity issue on the ground. He served as the minister of intergovernmental affairs and engaged in a war of open letters with Parti Québécois officials. He was also instrumental in helping to draft the Clarity Act, which says Canada would negotiate succession with Quebec only in the case of a "clear" majority and to a "clear" question.

He said during the French-language debate that Quebec doesn't need to be recognized in the Constitution as a nation. "It is not an ideal situation," he said.

Then, after the Quebec wing of the party put forward the motion, Dion said he would not support it. "We could certainly find a definition of the word 'nation' that respects the reality of Quebec. The error isn't there. The mistake is to make these semantic debates the centrepiece of a national unity strategy." He called Harper's motion similar to ideas he has put forward, and voted in favour of it.

"Quebecers want to remain Canadian and do not want to break the ties of loyalty that bind them to their fellow citizens," he said in a speech in 2003. "They reject the exclusive definitions of the word "people" or "nation" and want to belong to both the Quebec people and the Canadian people."

Outside the unity debate, his experience as the environment minister has put him in good standing in Quebec. He has served as the president of the UN Climate Change Conference in Montreal and is a champion of Kyoto, which has much support in Quebec.

Bob Rae has placed himself opposite to the front-runner Ignatieff. He says his experience as Ontario's premier has given him an insight into "the dynamics of federal-provincial relationship," when it comes to such issues as fiscal imbalance. He says a solution can be found in a "compromise."

On national unity, Rae lobbied hard for the passing of the Charlottetown accord in 1992, which, along with bringing Quebec into the constitutional fold, would have granted it status as a "distinct society." These days, however, he says he's not a supporter of reopening the Constitution after the Charlottetown accord was rejected in a referendum in 1992.

"In my view, it is dangerous for the Liberal party to promise people that we will change the Canadian Constitution, because, my friends, we have tried it and, I can tell you from experience, it is not easy to do; the negotiations are difficult and ratification is difficult," he said at a leadership debate.

Later, he said that he has "no particular problem" with Quebec as a "nation," but emphasized he didn't want to reopen the Constitution.

His view of federalism, laid out in a speech in Montreal in early September 2006, is that it "must support Quebecers in fulfilling their goals — creative federalism for a creative society."

He said in that same speech that "Canada and federalism must address the ambitions we have as Canadians and Quebecers."

Gerard Kennedy made a point of spending part of the summer in Quebec to polish up his French, but that did not translate into much support at all. He ended up with about 1.7 per cent of the delegates in the province, despite his national total of 17 per cent.

Kennedy was the sole frontrunner who rejected the government motion on Québécois as a nation. "This is not a small thing — this is about the identity of the country. It should not be played games with and I will not go along with that." Kennedy did not vote since he is not an MP. Two other leadership candidates, Ken Dryden and Joe Volpe, voted against the motion.

When asked by the Toronto Star editorial board about whether he sees Quebec as a nation, Kennedy replied: "There is a different definition to nation in the English and French languages. And I think that we need to accept that … For most Quebecers, they see themselves as part of a nation because of common history and culture … But it doesn't, in my view, have a constitutional application that we can recognize."

As the December leadership convention approaches, the Quebec race will eventually unfold. For example, if the race is down to two of the top three Quebec contenders — Rae, Ignatieff and Dion — where will the odd man throw his support?

The answer could go a long way toward suggesting who will be the new Liberal leader.

Resolution from Quebec wing of federal Liberals

Whereas history recognizes the three founding peoples of Canada — Aboriginal, French and English;

Whereas Quebec is a founding member of the Canadian federation and is the principal cradle of the French presence in North America;

Whereas Quebec defines itself primarily, although not exclusively, by its unique language and culture, its civil law and its inestimable contribution to the political, economic, and cultural evolution of Canada;

Whereas Quebec covers a specific territory and recognizes the historical linguistic duality and cultural plurality within this territory as enshrined in both the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms;

Whereas the majority of Quebecers wish to retain their historical partnership with the rest of Canada, respecting their partners' cultural and social aspirations;

Whereas countries have long recognized nations within their borders without upsetting either domestic or international legal frameworks;

Whereas it is [the] duty of the Liberal Party of Canada to take the lead in order to assure that each member of the Canadian federation is accorded the proper respect and recognition necessary to facilitate future discussions regarding the evolution of a Canada that best reflects its modern and advanced society;

Be it resolved that the Liberal Party of Canada recognizes the Quebec nation within Canada.

Be it further resolved that the Liberal Party of Canada will create an expert task force with the mandate of reporting to the next Leader of the Party on possible ways and the appropriate timing to officialize this historical and social reality.

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