What was Ignatieff thinking?

Liberal leadership candidate had nothing to gain by forcing the 'nation' issue

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The Gazette, Friday, October 27, 2006

For Stephane Dion, Quebecers are "a national group in the sociological sense." For Michael Ignatieff, Quebec is "a nation in the civic sense."

This is hair-splitting, right? Nope. It's an issue that Ignatieff has forced onto the Liberal leadership race in a manner that could blow up the convention at the end of November in Montreal.

This is because the Quebec wing of the Liberal Party last weekend adopted a resolution recognizing Quebec as a nation. It will now go to the convention where it will be debated and voted on in a plenary session. And if it's defeated, what then? Another humiliation for Quebec. It would certainly be a humiliation for Ignatieff.

The question of Quebec's status - special, distinct, unique, or whether it constitutes a nation within Canada, is the one issue, in this party, that could tear it apart.

This is, after all, the party of Pierre Trudeau, who in the 1968 campaign rejected Robert Stanfield's vision of two nations, and famously said he would put Quebec in its place, "and its place is in Canada." It's the party of Jean Chretien and the Charter of Rights, which entrenched equality of the provinces in part of the amending formula. Ottawa and nine provinces could vote to abolish the crown, but a 10th, say, Prince Edward Island, could veto such a constitutional amendment.

If you think the Liberals were sorely divided over Meech Lake - and their 1990 convention was a donnybrook on the weekend Meech died - that was a tea party compared to how Liberals could split over this.

Like, right down the middle between French and English-speaking Canada, between East and West, between the Trudeau-Chretien and Martin-Turner wings of the party.

And between Dion and Ignatieff. Dion, father of the Clarity Act, is being pushed between a constitutional rock and a hard place, a very uncomfortable spot for him to be put in as a favourite-son candidate in Quebec, and particularly at a convention being held in his hometown.

It's not clear what the Ignatieff camp hoped to gain by forcing this issue. After all, he's already got just about everything he's going to get in Quebec in terms of delegates. He did very well in the September "superweekend" sweepstakes, winning 39 per cent of the elected delegates (14 of them from each of the 75 Quebec ridings). As for the ex-officio or automatic delegates, they are the establishment of the party, and the establishment of this party cares only about one thing - winnability.

Ignatieff had already made his case for Quebec as a nation in his campaign manifesto - that he saw Quebec as a nation in the civic sense, one of 6,000 in the world, not to be confused with the 195 nations at the United Nations, all of them sovereign countries. The recognition of Quebec as a nation would not confer any additional powers on Quebec, since it already has sufficient powers under the current constitution, although Ignatieff proposes a new division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces and territories that would include aboriginal peoples.

The Ignatieff forces played a second card last weekend, recognizing the vertical fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. This, again, put Dion in the difficult position of denying its existence, as he did when he was minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in the Chretien government. In Quebec, this is the equivalent of opposing glasnost during the Gorbachev years - it is considered revealed wisdom, the doctrine of the day.

Just to make sure Dion's embarrassment was complete, the Iggyites roundly booed him.

Now, how, after all that, is there any way for Dion to move to Ignatieff as the kingmaker after the second or third ballot?

And how is Ignatieff to measure his own embarrassment if he cannot carry this issue on the floor of the convention? The Ignatieff campaign doesn't have the muscle to force this issue through. Not at 30 per cent of the elected delegates, they don't. Not even with his share of ex-officios, which would normally bring him about three points higher. Not even with two-thirds of the Quebec delegates voting in favour, as they did last weekend.

So Ignatieff has little to gain, and much to lose, by forcing this issue onto the floor of the convention. And the question is, once again, what was he thinking?

Here's a theory: There's a fundamental disconnect in the Ignatieff campaign, between the anglophone and francophones. Much as in Paul Martin's PMO, the English speakers don't know Quebec, and defer to the French-speakers, without considering the consequences in the rest of Canada.

Well, in all of this, there's only one sure winner: Bob Rae.

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