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Parliament formally recognized the French-speaking people of Quebec as a nation within Canada, a seemingly symbolic gesture that has led to a Cabinet resignation and ignited concerns over a renewed push for the province's sovereignty.
The motion presented by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday, which says Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada, is largely symbolic in that it requires no constitutional amendment or change of law. The opposition Liberals and New Democrats supported the motion, so it passed easily through the House of Commons.
It was devised by Harper to pre-empt a similar attempt by the Bloc Quebecois, the party in Parliament that represents Quebec, whose members also reluctantly backed the resolution once they realized they had been outflanked by Harper.
The Tories are lagging in popularity in Quebec and Harper believes the formal recognition will win him favor among the traditionally liberal voters in the eastern province.
"This government believes strongly that the time has come for national reconciliation," Harper told the House of Commons hours before the Monday night vote.
But others fear the recognition will be divisive, re-igniting hope among Quebec separatists for an independent nation and other ethnic and indigenous groups to demand similar nationhood.
Michael Chong resigned earlier in the day as the intergovernmental affairs minister, saying he could not accept the "ethnic nationalism" implicit in Harper's historic initiative.
"I believe in this great country of ours and I believe in one nation, undivided, called Canada, based on civic and not ethnic nationalism," he said.
Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, Harper's political lieutenant in Quebec, has insisted the Tory recognition of a Quebecois nation is purely symbolic, with no legal or constitutional consequences. He rejected Chong's suggestion that it could contribute to ethnic division.
"Fundamentally, what we want to do is to bring closure to this issue and start a reconciliation process," he said.
The people of Quebec have twice voted down referendums seeking independence from Canada; the last one narrowly defeated in 1995. Though there are some in Quebec still longing for sovereignty, most Quebecois wish to remain an integral part of Canada.
Gerard Kennedy, one of several front-runners for the Liberal Party leadership, is opposed to Quebec nationhood, dismissing the parliamentary maneuvering over the matter as "game playing."
"This is no small thing, this is about the identity of this country," he said. "It should not be played games with, and I will not go along with that."
The issue resurfaced when Michael Ignatieff, another front-runner for the Liberal Party leadership, said the French language, history and culture mark Quebecers as a separate people who should be recognized as a nation under the Constitution.
The Liberals, whose lost power to the Conservatives in January after nearly 13 years, will convene their national convention in Montreal next week and choose their next leader.
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