Not for almost two decades - back in the days of Brian Mulroney - has the Canadian Parliament been ripped apart by the search for a legal definition of the Quebec identity.
It happened so quickly that politicians from all political parties are still trying to understand the legal definition of what they voted for, and the constitutional implications their vote may have down the line.
It is the stuff that Supreme Court constitutional cases are made of. Bora Laskin, where are you when we need you?
It all began innocently enough in Octobe. It came out of the mouth of Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff, ever the Harvard professor and loose cannon emeritus. He tossed out - just for fun - the explosive notion that Quebec is a nation within Canada. As if the Liberals didn’t have enough to talk about at their leadership convention with the war in Afghanistan, climate chaos, and the sad state of health care.
The Quebec wing of the Liberal Party, tilting at the time, heavily for Ignatieff, took a historic step that surely made Pierre Trudeau roll over in his grave. Following Ignatieff’s lead, it adopted a landmark resolution recognizing Quebec as a nation within the Canadian federation.
This was the sort of thing the Liberal Party, under Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and even Paul Martin, had always opposed. As late as Oct. 30, 2003, the Liberals had voted against such an idea in the Commons.
This time the resolution went further. It called for a Liberal task force that would decide on the best time to “officialize” this “historic and social reality.” Sounded like we were already on our way to another constitutional conference should the Liberals get back into power next spring.
The wording is important, as wording usually is in complex legal cases. The Liberal resolution referred to the territorial entity of Quebec, not to a bunch of people who feel they are Quebeckers, whether they live in the province or not - sort of like when someone says they are Irish, it does not necessarily mean they are citizens of the Irish state.
The resolution divided the eight Liberal leadership candidates. The Conservatives in Ottawa howled in delight. English-Canadian Liberals turned against Ignatieff for raising the divisive issue in the first place.
It took close to a month for the Bloc Québécois to realize they had an opening to divide the Liberals even further - a generous gift from Ignatieff - as well as a chance to inflict some political damage on the Conservatives.
On Nov. 21, Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe presented a motion in the Commons that “Québécoises and Québécois form a nation.” It was a strange wording, specifically naming the two genders rather than sticking to the notion of “Quebec” as a territorial nation.
Policy wonk and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has always considered himself the smartest man in the room, decided, without consulting his caucus and his cabinet, he had a great opportunity to trump the separatists.
Harper countered with a motion that the “Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” Note carefully the wording - not “Quebec” but “Québécois.” It has never been an English word. It is now. Canadian dictionary experts please take note.
The problem was that nobody in the Conservative party, not even Harper’s Quebec lieutenant, Lawrence Cannon, seemed to know who is a “Québécois.” Does it include only people who live in Quebec, or also those who used to live there, but are temporarily working in Alberta, or those who call themselves English-Quebeckers?
It didn’t take long in interviews with Montreal Gazette reporter Elizabeth Thompson for Cannon to trip all over himself. Cannon, who has an English name, is the perfect example: a fully bilingual Quebecker, equally competent, and in this case, equally confused about his Quebec identity in both official languages.
Such havoc hath Harper wrought.
In any case. the Commons passed Harper’s “Québécois” resolution by a margin of 266 to 16 on Nov. 27. The Bloc came to its partisan senses and voted for Harper’s “in a united Canada” resolution realizing that any recognition of a “nation” was a step forward in the fight for Quebec independence, however incomplete the wording.
Harper’s resolution, confusing as it sounds, might serve the federalists down the line. If it ever gets to the Supreme Court, a federalist lawyer might argue that being a part of a nation within Canada does not mean the Québécois can take a whole territory with them if they decide to leave Canada.
That might, depending on how many angels can stand on the head of a constitutional pin at the same time, open the door for the partition of a separate Quebec. We would have Harper to thank. And not to be too petulant about it, but what about the “Québécoises” left out of the Harper resolution? Do they have to stay behind in Canada?
Right now we have more mundane considerations. Quebec City lawyer Guy Bertrand, the same wily fellow who brought the Clarity case to the Supreme Court before the Chrétien Liberals took it over, has got another legal case going to embarrass the separatists.
He says since the Québécois are now a nation, they have the right to their own national hockey team for international competitions, just as Scotland, a nation within the United Kingdom, has its own soccer team which competes for the World Cup.
Not as silly as it sounds. Precedents count for something in law. If the soccer lords at FIFA recognize Scotland, why wouldn’t the International Ice Hockey Federation recognize the Québécois?
And then what would Team Canada do for goalies?
Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill.