These are interesting times indeed for Canadian federalism. That the Quebecois should suddenly (if insubstantially) be recognised as a nation by the federal government is strange, at least within the context of Canadian history on the subject. That such a change should come down under a conservative government is truly bizarre.
The move is insubstantial because it takes the form only of a motion by the Prime Minister before the House of Commons. This is important, of course, and it sets precedent, but the fundamental status of Quebec and its people would more properly be recognised in the Constitution. Thus us that a far cry from the failed ‘distinct society’ ideas in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords.
It also recognises the Quebecois people rather than the political entity of Quebec. The Quebecois people may well constitute a nation (they almost certainly do by at least one of the dictionary definitions of the word) but they are not alone among the people of Quebec, many of whom are immigrant, Anglophone, native, and so on. The Quebecois could not constitute themselves as a nation-state—as the Bloc and the PQ would have it—without the political entity as well, with its territory, political machinery, etc, attached.
This is, thus, one more turn in a longstanding debate, rather than anything like a solution. Even as an idea, it’s not terribly radical—we’ve been calling Native Canadian groups First Nations for years. Nonetheless, its political significance is probably very real.
What’s really difficult to gage is how this will play politically for the Tories. PM Harper gets credit for a statesmanlike political move, and gets credit also for undercutting the Bloc, but this largely lets the Liberals out of an internal debate about Quebec’s nationhood, at a time when it stood to significantly damage their credibility. There could still be a divide in the Liberal Party when the motion comes to a vote, but it could cause as much dissent in the Conservative Party, which is the home both of Brian Mulroney’s distinct society and of hard-line Anglo Canadian nationalists, such as any exist. It’s hard to imagine the Alberta Conservative parliamentary contingent being too thrilled about this. On the other hand, three-party unity in the House, as has apparently happened on this, is rare indeed.
Of course, if Harper looses the next election to Michael Ignatieff, Bob Ray, or someone else, this might well be remembered as his largest symbolic contribution to Canadian politics, certainly on the issue of federalism at least. It may be more or less symbolic, but it stands nonetheless to be remembered and to have entirely unpredictable on federal party politics.