Whoever wins the Liberal leadership will have to deal with the “Quebec is a nation” controversy swirling around candidate Michael Ignatieff. Quebec represents the key to the political future of the Liberals. Creating a governing majority with substantial Quebec representation is the goal of any Canadian leader; achieving it is why the Liberals have been in power most of the time since Laurier was elected in 1896.

Most understand that Canadian reality features a French-speaking minority centred in Quebec, while the majority of Canada outside Quebec is English-speaking.

Fewer appreciate that the linguistic minority is a national minority: it has its own history, as New France, then as a conquered people, with its territory ceded out from under it in the Treaty of Paris of 1763, becoming part of a British colony but surviving — despite constitutional attempts at assimilation — and living uneasily within Canada, resisting domination, adopting the identity Canadien, then French Canadian, before taking on the name of the province where it constitutes the majority.

One group of Quebecers — federalists — want national recognition for the linguistic minority centred in Quebec enshrined in the constitution. Another group of federalist Quebecers do not agree.

In one form or another as “special status,” “asymmetrical federalist,” “distinct society,” “Quebec as a nation,” this argument has raged within Liberal ranks since the 1960s, with the provincial wing in the first camp, and the Trudeau/Chrétien federal party in the second group.

Under Paul Martin the provincialist position was welcomed into the federal party. Indeed, bringing former sovereigntists on to his campaign team was a major feature of Martinâe(TM)s tenure as leader.

With or without agreement on the meaning of nation, or even to whom, or where it applies, Quebec nationalism exists, and its full political expression sits in the Canadian Parliament, blocking the door to a Liberal return to majority government. The Bloc Québécois in Ottawa works closely with the Parti Québécois, likely to form the next government of the province. For the Bloc, and the PQ, nationhood means sovereignty, not a recognition of Quebec as a nation within Canada, constitutionally, or otherwise.

Today, French-speaking Quebecers enjoy legislative protection for their language and culture. French is the official language of Quebec by law of the province, as adopted by the elected National Assembly. This “civic nationalism” co-exists with the national identity forged by history.

Identifying Quebec as a nation within Canada is designed to weaken the appeal of the independence option, but its Liberal opponents see obstacles and dangers to recognizing Canada as a multi-national state. What do you do about aboriginal nations for instance? It is better to debate with your adversaries, than make concessions that will not satisfy them, Stéphane Dion, the most prominent among them believes.

Ask sovereigntists what they will do about Quebecers who want to secede from an independent Quebec? Has not the issue of independence been decided, twice, by ballot? If 76 per cent approval was not enough for Bernard Landry to remain leader of the PQ, what majority is needed for secession from Canada?

Figuring out if referring to Quebec as a nation moves the Liberal Party closer back to power is the call the next leader will make. In the meantime, making Canada a country that anyone would want to live in remains the main political challenge. On that score the Liberals have a lot to answer for, starting in Quebec.

Playing tough with Quebec was good politics for Jean Chrétien. Instead of doing everything in his power to make Canada attractive to Quebec, he preferred to make himself attractive to Canada by attacking Quebec nationalism. While every day wrapping himself in the Canadian flag, he cut the ties that bind Canadians together, weakening income security, undermining health care, privatizing Air Canada, Canadian National, Petro-Canada, and paying no attention to the looming crisis in Quebec over cuts to unemployment insurance in the pre-referendum period. Failing to build Canada, he watched just about one in two Quebecers vote Oui in the second sovereignty vote.

To fix things up he introduced the sponsorship program, ads instead of social entitlements as Canadians. When Martin flubbed the fallout from the scandal of that approach, the Conservatives took power in Ottawa.

When the federal government is awash in money, while beggars sleep on the streets in increasing numbers, something needs to be done differently. There is no evidence that any of the Liberal leadership candidates have figured this out in either official language.

Having Canada as a country that is trusted and respected in the world matters in Quebec. Continental economic integration, and doing the bidding of the U.S. in Afghanistan do not make Canadian citizenship more valued or esteemed.

Democratic politics is about how a majority is constituted and a minority protected. French-speakers are a minority, a national minority. Under current constitutional practice both the language and those who speak it in Quebec can be protected. Constituting a majority that includes Quebec is the political task.

Indeed, what Canada needs is a good dose of civic nationalism. Quebec has shown the way.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...