The issue of defining the Quebecois people as a nation within Canada has exposed a whole host of things about the Conservative government of Steve Harper.
The first, although hardly the most important thing, is that Harper managed to pull off something, by playing with words, which might quite reasonably have been expected to be presented as a Constitutional amendment. One of the primary objectives in the failed Meech Lake Accord was to grant Quebec the status of "distinct society" in Part II of the Constitution Act of 1867 (British North America Act).
I don't think that was intentional.
Harper was trapped. The original motion presented by Duceppe was spurious in nature. Harper found himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Either vote against the motion and incur the emotional upwelling of Quebec nationalism, (of course it would have happened), or find a way to make it palatable to all parties and garner favour from the one province in which he cannot generate political support.
Harper could not use "distinct society". The memory of that failed effort would have caused a furious uproar, not the least of which reasons would have been the re-emergence of the ghost of Brian Mulroney in the House.
The vote itself, and the aftermath tells us a lot about the inner workings of Harper's government, if you can actually call it that.
Second, the invoking of a three-line whip by Jay Hill, the Chief Government Whip, provides us yet another broken promise by Harper. Robert at My Blahg points it out clearly and draws the point from his comments section. And, you can look it up on page 44 of the Conservative election platform here.
Why would Harper have to do that? Easy. He quite likely had a near caucus revolt on his hands. He had to impose party discipline, something he promised he would never do, in order to get his motion through the House.
It probably would have carried anyway, (he has enough sheep in his caucus), but a significant enough number of Conservative MPs would have voted against it in a free-vote to damage Harper's political image in Quebec. He could not afford that... at all.
The third thing that becomes apparent is that the Ministry has little or no power in a Harper government. Everything is concentrated in the Prime Minister's Office and dictated, not by elected members, but by appointed political hacks. That became clear when Michael Chong resigned his cabinet post of Inter-governmental Affairs Minister over this whole issue. Chong was not consulted on the wording of the motion. In fact, he was completely out of the loop on this and most other inter-governmental affairs. That's more than a little strange but it does demonstrate that Harper, and Harper alone, directs all policy. He's a notorious micro-manager and quite clearly, a tyrant within his own caucus. There is no Conservative government: there is the Steve Harper government.
The fourth important disclosure is that Harper probably does not understand the gravity of what has taken place. A motion in the House that carries is the "will of the House". To retract that in any future parliament requires a new motion and Jim at The Progressive Right spells out the reason a motion to the House can be more damaging than legislation. Add to that the fact that Harper, nor anyone else has ever really spelled out what this motion actually means. He has described what it is not, but never what it really is. The belief that this motion will not be used in some future attempt by Quebec nationalists as a lever is naive at best. All over the world headlines in foreign news organs are reading this as a move granting Quebec nationhood.
Harper's vainglorious statement after the vote is as unbelievable as anything he's ever said in the past:
"I think tonight was an historic night," he said after the vote. "Canadians across the country said 'yes' to Quebec, 'yes' to Quebecers, and Quebecers said 'yes' to Canada."Really....
That is over doing it to an unbelievable degree. There was something historic alright, but to suggest Canadians as a whole had anything to do with it is patently false. Canadians were not offered a chance to vote on the matter in a referendum; the caucus of the governing party was compelled to vote with Harper after limiting debate; and, this had nothing to do with saying "yes" or "no" to Quebec or any other part of the country. This was nothing more than Harper political showmanship.
You can expect Harper to go into Quebec in the next election campaign claiming that Quebec's newly minted identity is his doing and his idea. And there, this will all come back to bite him.
The idea of identifying the people of Quebec as a nation originated with some of the candidates for the federal Liberal party leadership.
It was Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, who introduced the first motion in the House of Commons. Had he not done that, Harper would never have generated the idea of "nation" for Quebecers at all. It was never an item on the table and it would not go down well with the party.
What certain Liberals, and of course Gilles Duceppe, can do during an election campaign is demonstrate how they, while not in power as government, managed to control Harper and his dillettantes. How they were easily able to damage the Harperites.
Duceppe played this well and now he can take advantage of it. He forced Harper's hand and caused him to break the promise of free-votes on such matters. He put enough pressure on the Conservatives to cause the Chief Whip to invoke party discipline over a "simple motion". He, with little effort, caused the resignation of a Harper Cabinet Minister. He slyly exposed the weakness of the Harper government with a "simple motion".
Harper can attempt to claim victory in this event if he wishes to. It won't work. Gilles Duceppe seriously and adeptly out-maneouvred Harper. I wouldn't have said this a week ago, but Duceppe has demonstrated that he's one helluva politician. Now he can go into the next election and claim he won something for Quebec and quickly dispell any credit Harper might try to take for the outcome of this motion.
The winner in all this is not Quebec, not Canada and not Harper. The one who comes away from this vote with all the credibility and power is Gilles Duceppe.