Less than a year after he asked voters to make him prime minister, Michael Ignatieff is now warning that Quebec and Canada are almost two separate countries, drifting towards a possible breakup.
The ex-Liberal leader and academic appeared to offer a gloomy diagnosis on the state of Canadian unity in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Ignatieff told his audience that, whatever happens in the upcoming Scottish referendum, the United Kingdom will change — regardless of whether the nationalist side wins or loses.
As an example, Ignatieff pointed to Canada’s experience with the Quebec sovereignty movement; he said Canada reacted by transferring power to Quebec to satisfy its growing aspirations for autonomy — but he suggested that solution is only temporary.
“It’s a kind of way station — you stop there for a while,” Ignatieff said.
“But I think the logic, eventually, is independence. Full independence.”
Asked by his Scottish interviewer whether he was talking about independence for both Quebec and Scotland, Ignatieff replied: “I think, eventually, that’s where it goes.”
After leading the Liberals to a historic defeat in the May 2, 2011, federal election, the longtime journalist and academic returned to a teaching job at the University of Toronto.
In that election, Quebec actually did abandon the separatist Bloc Quebecois — but since then there has been a revival of nationalist fortunes in the province, with the Parti Quebecois now flying high in the polls at the provincial level. The PQ promises that, if elected, it will allow citizens to initiate future referendums on independence or on other topics.
Ignatieff says he’s saddened to see how Canada and Quebec have become isolated, with the optimism of decades past having given way to disillusionment.
“The problem here is we don’t have anything to say to each other anymore,” he said. “There’s a kind of contract of mutual indifference, which is very striking for someone of my generation.”
It wasn’t always this way, he told his British audience.
When he was younger, Ignatieff suggested, Quebec played a central role in the Canadian identity.
“I can’t think of this country without Quebec. Je parle francais. And when I think about being a Canadian, speaking French is part of it,” Ignatieff said.
“But that’s not the way most English Canadians now think of their country. They might have done 30 or 40 years ago, when we thought we could live together in this strange hybrid country called Canada.
“Now effectively, we’re almost two separate countries.”
Reports of Ignatieff’s comments prompted some dismay from his federalist allies — along with some head-scratching from friends and foes alike.
There was no immediate comment from the Liberal party but Prime Minister Stephen Harper did issue a terse reaction through a spokesman.
“As the prime minister said in his speech to the Conservative convention in 2011, we believe in a strong, proud and autonomous Quebec within a united Canada,” said the statement.
“We’ve been practising a federalism of openness, respectful of provincial jurisdictions, ever since we took office in 2006.”
Especially puzzling to some were the examples Ignatieff chose to show how Canada had devolved power to Quebec, as a response to the independence movement and what he called the “near-death experience” of the 1995 referendum.
Ignatieff cited immigration, natural-resources development, education and health care as examples of powers that had been transferred to Quebec in order to keep peace with the nationalists. “We’ve kept the show on the road by (making) Quebec essentially master in their own house,” he said, rattling off those examples.
But some of those examples he cited are as old as the country itself, and date back to Canada’s 1867 Constitution Act.
Ignatieff’s observation surprised more than one prominent Quebec sovereigntist.
“Did anyone see these (new powers) fly by?” Josee Legault asked, rhetorically, on her Twitter page. “I believe Quebec got the ’radical new power’ of camping out at UNESCO’s Canadian delegation.”
Soon after taking office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave Quebec a quasi-official role at UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural organization, and also declared the Quebecois a nation in a House of Commons motion.
But those early overtures to nationalists did not translate into more seats in Quebec for Harper’s Tories.
After the last federal election, the Harper government angered Quebec nationalists by appointing people who can’t speak French to key federal positions, and by reviving symbols of the monarchy that had previously been allowed to fade into the background.
Those moves coincided with an eruption of language debates in Quebec last summer. The PQ, which hopes to win an election that must be held by late next year, has seized on those so-called “identity” issues.