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Liberal MP Justin Trudeau speaks briefly with media as he enters party caucus meetings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 26, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau speaks briefly with media as he enters party caucus meetings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 26, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Opinion

If Trudeau wants to be PM, he needs to clarify Quebec comments Add to ...

Justin Trudeau has earned a reputation of being a lightweight when it comes to many key qualities needed to succeed in politics, and not without reason.

When the Conservative government updated Canada’s citizenship study guide in order to label honour killings as “barbaric,” Mr. Trudeau voiced dissent only to retract his comments shortly afterward. Last December, a spontaneous outburst resulted in Mr. Trudeau calling a minister of the Crown an obscenity in the House of Commons. He later apologized.

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Perhaps these comments were planned in advance in order to generate media attention, something that Mr. Trudeau has learned to do quite well. Or perhaps they were true gaffes, demonstrating that Mr. Trudeau may have difficulty as leader when it comes to staying on message – the paramount aptitude any politician must master.

Yet it is not the genesis of Mr. Trudeau’s most controversial utterance that is of particular import, but rather its actual content. The Papineau MP explicitly established the fact that there are certain conditions that, if fulfilled, could cause him to support Quebec separatism. Now that Mr. Trudeau is set to launch a leadership bid – and by consequence a run for prime minister of Canada – now would be a particularly opportune time to bring these comments back into the fore.

The condition listed by Trudeau that would prompt his support for the secessionist cause was for the rest of the country to have become “the Canada of Stephen Harper,” listing attacks on a woman’s right to choose and possible moves to reverse existing same-sex marriage legislation as particular examples of what such a Canada would resemble.

This is particularly odd, seeing as the current government has moved to close loopholes when it comes to gay marriage and has made the promotion of the rights of homosexuals an important foreign policy goal. The support offered by four Liberal MPs for Stephen Woodworth’s botched attempt to re-open the abortion debate further undermines Mr. Trudeau’s argument. (Numerous Liberal legislators had previously helped defeat a Grit-initiated vote promoting maternal health under Michael Ignatieff’s leadership.)

Moreover, it is not the sheer senselessness of Mr. Trudeau’s statement that is of concern but also his attempts to clarify. Allow me to quote the man himself: “There is a way of viewing social responsibility, openness to others, a cultural pride here in Quebec that is necessary to Canada.”

According to Mr. Trudeau, Canada needs Quebec’s civilizing presence in government so as not to fall off the right side of the political spectrum. The fact that nearly one third of Quebeckers just voted for a party that promotes religious discrimination in the public service and curtailing the right of non-francophones to live in the city of their choice or run for public office would seriously undermine this thesis.

And now, Mr. Trudeau hopes not only to become the prime minister of the federation he could consider breaking up but also to become leader of the party that has consistently defended national unity more robustly than Canada’s other federalist parties. According to an Abacus Data survey released in August, 70 per cent of those living outside Quebec who voted Liberal in 2011 would opt to keep Quebec in Confederation in the event of another referendum, contrasted with 60 per cent of NDP supporters and a mere 48 per cent of those who backed the Tories.

Liberal caucus members may disagree on elements of fiscal, social or foreign policy, but the defence of national unity must be a non-negotiable criterion for membership – and most certainly for leadership – in the ranks of Grit deputation. The days of those such as Jean Lapierre and Lucien Bouchard forming part of a true federalist party’s caucus (read: the caucuses of the Liberal and Conservative Parties) are finished and have been since the creation of the Bloc Québécois.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier put it best when he famously declared that there was no cause – no matter how noble – greater than preserving the unity of the nation. In order to rebuild, the Liberal Party must clearly articulate what its values are, and there will be no latitude for wavering when it comes to an issue so integral to Liberal identity.

Mr. Trudeau has attempted – in near-opprobrious fashion – to elucidate his original comments on Quebec separatism. But he has yet to withdraw them. The leadership aspirant could, however, amend this quandary by categorically articulating the following statement: “No matter who holds the post of prime minister, there are absolutely no conditions under which I would consider backing Quebec’s separation from the rest of Canada.”

We’re waiting, Justin.

Zach Paikin was a candidate for National Policy Chair of the Liberal Party of Canada at the party’s 2012 biennial convention.

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