A majestic moment

Harper outsmarts the Bloc with his motion declaring the 'Quebec people' to be a nation, not 'Quebec' is a nation

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The Gazette, Thursday, November 23, 2006

It was a majestic moment in Parliament yesterday when Stephen Harper crossed the floor to shake hands with Bill Graham after the Liberal leader's statement endorsing the prime minister's motion to recognize Quebecers as a nation within Canada. For his part, Graham had led the Liberals in a standing ovation for Harper.

Note the wording of the motion, that the House recognizes Quebecers as a nation, not Quebec as a nation. There is a very big difference between the two.

Quebecers constitute a nation in the sense that Acadians do, or the Cree among other aboriginal peoples, that is to say as a people with their own language, culture, history and territory. In other words, Quebecers are a nation in what Stephane Dion has called the sociological sense.

Quebec as a nation is an entirely different matter and this is what Gilles Duceppe was proposing when he served notice Tuesday night that the Bloc Quebecois would use an opposition day to bring a resolution to the House recognizing "the Quebec nation."

There being no coincidences in politics, the timing of Duceppe's gambit was obvious. He aimed to embarrass the Liberals further on an issue that has left them badly divided going into their leadership convention next week, while getting the Conservatives on the same hook.

But in a lightning play yesterday, Harper completely outmanoeuvred Duceppe, with a resolution that all federalist parties endorsed, leaving the Bloc isolated and Duceppe visibly annoyed, his eyes bulging with anger.

Quite simply, he was outsmarted by Harper. The Liberals jumped at the resolution because it solves a problem that threatened to blow up their convention. Graham had summoned all eight leadership candidates to a meeting to push for a compromise on the resolution sent to the convention by the wing of the party calling for recognition of Quebec as a nation. Problem solved.

Harper's play neatly trumped the Bloc resolution, while sidestepping the trap of the Quebec nation. What was most striking was the speed with which Harper moved. Within 12 hours of receiving word of the Bloc resolution, Harper was standing before his national caucus yesterday proposing, and explaining, one of his own. There wasn't a dissenting voice, and this in the party of John Diefenbaker's One Canada and Preston Manning's western Reform movement. The caucus gave him a standing ovation.

Over the lunch hour yesterday, Harper worked with Graham on wording that would be acceptable to the Liberals. Harper then set to work writing his two-page statement to the House himself.

While Harper was giving up short-term political advantage of enjoying the Liberals' anguished division on this issue, he was bidding to gain a greater advantage over the longer term - as a prime minister with a sense of history and a generous sense of country. Graham's statement was equally eloquent, even emotional, in his declaration that questions of country are more important than partisan divisions. He didn't mention his relief. He didn't have to. It was plain on his face.

There was such a moment in the life of the House on the Manitoba minority-language rights issue in September 1983. The Liberals set a trap for the new Conservative leader, Brian Mulroney, by proposing a motion recognizing French-language minority-language rights in Manitoba, an issue that threatened to tear the Tory caucus apart. Instead, Mulroney rallied them to support the motion, and used the occasion of his maiden address to the House to forever bury the ghosts of Conservative intolerance on the language issue. Pierre Trudeau was equally magnificent in the House that day.

Similarly, Harper yesterday seized an opportunity to offer a strong sense of history and a generous definition of Quebecers' role in Confederation, but clearly within the boundaries of a federal state.

"In landing in Quebec City," he said, "Champlain didn't say this isn't going to work, it's too far, it's too cold, it's too hard. No. Champlain and his companions worked hard because they believed in what they were doing and because they wanted to preserve their values, and they wanted a safe and longstanding country. That's precisely what happened almost 400 years later. The foundation of the Canadian state. Mr. Speaker, Quebecers know who they are. They know they've participated in the foundation, the founding of Canada in its development and in its greatness. They know that they've protected their language and unique culture, but they've also promoted their values and interests within Canada.

"The real question is straightforward. Do Quebecers form a nation within a united Canada? The answer is yes. Do Quebecers form an independent nation from Canada? The answer is no, and it will always be no."

Anytime a prime minister gets to make a vision of Canada speech, that's a good day for him. Any time the opportunity is handed to him by the leader of the Bloc, that's an even better day for the country.

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