Quebec Issue Rears its Head Again in Canada

A motion approved by Canada's parliament states that "the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada." The motion is mostly symbolic, but the language of separatism pushes buttons throughout the country.

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Canada's Parliament has approved a controversial motion that labels the province of Quebec its own nation within Canada. The largely symbolic move is being criticized for fanning the flames of separatism in Quebec.

Richard Reynolds reports from Toronto.

RICHARD REYNOLDS: This may all seem like an arcane debate, and it is. But these sorts of questions have enormous emotional appeal in Quebec. Many Quebecois have never felt fully a part of Canada, the differences in language, history and culture being too great.

The result is about one-third of the province thinks Quebec should be a sovereign state, a proportion that rises when debate gets heated. Yesterday it got hot. The motion said simply that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.

While it passed easily, it was still an emotional debate. Several dozen members of parliament either abstained or voted against their party, a rare move in Canada. Cabinet Minister Michael Chong resigned his post in protest. He thinks the move will only encourage those who want an independent Quebec.

Mr. MICHAEL CHONG (Canadian Cabinet Minister): They will argue that if the Quebecer are a nation within Canada, then they are certainly a nation without Canada.

REYNOLDS: The motion is all about appearances. Its passage actually changes nothing. It's simply a nod toward the Quebecois' feelings. But critics say it will lead to further demands from Quebec for special powers, and that judges may eventually grant those powers as a result of the motion.

But its exact meaning remains unclear. The bottom line is that critics fear it may become a big deal. Gerard Kennedy is a leading candidate to become the next head of the powerful Liberal Party.

Mr. GERARD KENNEDY (Liberal Party): There will be reverberations from this that we may not feel tomorrow, but they will happen and will happen because this motion is not defined. It doesn't say what a (French spoken) is or what a nation is for Quebec. We should not be trafficking in symbols for which we either don't know what they mean or we intend people to be misled by them.

REYNOLDS: Eleven years ago, these endless discussions almost led to Canada ripping itself apart. A referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec was narrowly defeated. The debate was fired by an attempt to amend Canada's constitution in part by labeling Quebec a distinct society, just a slight variation on today's nation label.

Canada's 1 million native Indians said, what about us? Aren't we distinct, too? French speakers living outside Quebec felt left out, and many English Canadians felt it rejected the principle of equality amongst the 10 provinces.

The debate had sat quietly since 1995, but it came up again last month when another candidate for the Liberal Party leadership raised it looking to curry favor in Quebec. It's an issue that doesn't really go away in Canada.

Robert Shepherd(ph) wrote a book about Canada's constitutional debates.

Mr. ROBERT SHEPHERD (Author) It's been with us since the very beginning of the country. Quebecers have always been fearful of assimilation and their role in Canada and that they're different. They felt they were being overtaken by the English-speaking Europeans that came after them. And so this has been just part of the Canadian-like motif all the way through.

REYNOLDS: Today, observers here aren't certain that the debate will grow to the levels seen a decade ago, but few doubt that Canadians have not seen the end of the squabbles surrounding Quebec.

For NPR News, I'm Richard Reynolds in Toronto.

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