It’s the Nixon in China thing. It took a prime minister from Alberta to win recognition of Quebecers as a nation within Canada. A prime minister from Quebec could never have sold it in Ontario and, especially, the West.
"This," Stephen Harper was saying last Friday morning, "is simply a declaration of recognition and a ge=sture of reconciliation."
It is "a symbolic gesture," as he said, which confers no additional powers or special status on Quebec, recognizing Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada. But while it is only symbolic, it is also deeply symbolic. Canadian unity, the very fabric of the country, is full of symbols. Symbols are the stuff of legend and icons and national mythology. And in Quebec, nothing is more symbolically important than this.
After the motion is adopted unanimously tonight by all four parties in the House, it will be a time for healing of painful wounds from the death of Meech Lake in 1990 and, previously, the patriation of the Constitution without Quebec’s assent in 1982.
In the rest of the country, Harper will have some explaining to do that this merely means recognition of Quebecers as a nation in the sociological sense as proposed by Stephane Dion. "It’s not a constitutional amendment," Harper said. "It’s not a legal text. It’s simply a declaration of recognition and a gesture of reconciliation. And I think it’s important to recognize the reality. I know it’s not easy for everyone in the rest of Canada, but I think when we talk about a nation, Quebecers are a group of people with an identity, a history, a language, a culture and the meaning of that in the vocabulary is a nation."
As he was explaining these things in French, a mostly English-speaking audience of health-care professionals broke spontaneously into applause.
Harper was at the Montreal General Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre, announcing the $260-million Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, an organization that will be run by stakeholders at arms-length from the government and the bureaucracy of Health Canada. But when it came to the Q&A, first in French and then in English, journalists went straight to the nation thing.
Harper was quite prepared to go there. Clearly he had thought about it a lot in the last few days, as he had thought about it several times since he was asked the Quebec-nation question in Quebec City on St. Jean Baptiste weekend and said he wasn’t too concerned with questions of semantics.
Clearly not satisfied with his own answer, he said last month that Quebec was "an indispensable part of Canada," which means exactly the same thing in French as it does in English, saying all that needed to be said.
But then last Tuesday, when the Bloc Quebecois served notice of a motion declaring Quebecers a nation - a motion calculated to sow even more disarray among Liberals at their convention in Montreal this week - Harper saw an opportunity and seized the moment. He countered with one of his own, affirming Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada.
The Liberals, at risk of being torn apart on the Quebec-nation question on the floor of a convention being held in Quebec, grabbed it like a life raft. The NDP and Jack Layton also went along with it, leaving the Bloc isolated in the House on a question they raised in the House. By Friday morning, unable to explain himself to his own voters, Gilles Duceppe announced that the Bloc would also be supporting the government motion of Quebecers comprising a nation, "within a united Canada."
"That’s interesting," Harper said. "That’s the third position of the Bloc in three days. First they proposed a motion. Then they made an amendment to their motion, and now they’re supporting our motion, but I must say that my first responsibility as prime minister of Canada, my first responsibility is Canadian unity. If I can have the support of even the Bloc, I’m happy."
Clearly, Harper was enjoying himself. The previous week, his misbegotten trip to the Asia Pacific summit, was his worst since becoming prime minister. Last week was, quite unexpectedly, his best, all because he seized the moment.
"Leadership," Brian Mulroney was saying the other day, "is the capacity to transform a challenge into an opportunity. And that’s what he did."
All on his own.