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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses the audience after being awarded an honorary degree in law from McGill University Friday,Paul Chiasson

Unshackled from the restraints of presidential office, Bill Clinton dropped any pretence of neutrality on the national-unity file Friday and bluntly welcomed an undivided Canada.

Using the podium of an honorary-doctorate ceremony at McGill University, the former U.S. president seized on the august occasion to highlight Canada's perennial national-unity debate.

"You have occasional votes about whether you ought not to be together," he told about 700 people in the audience. "I'm glad you didn't get a divorce," he said, prompting applause.

In a tacit acknowledgment that he had to hold his tongue in office, he added: "The great thing about not being president is you can say whatever you want."

Endorsements from American presidents were hotly sought by both sides during national-unity crises, but U.S. leaders tended to steer clear from appearing to meddle in Canada's internal affairs.

Mr. Clinton did offer carefully worded support to the federalist side during his presidency, notably in Mont Tremblant in 1999 when he held up Canadian federalism as a model for the world. But the foreign-policy mantra of the United States has been to support Canadian unity while leaving it up to Canadians and Quebeckers to decide.

Friday's nod to federalism was only one of several references to Canada in an acceptance speech that dwelled broadly on the theme of working for the global common good.

Ushered into the hall by a Black Watch piper, Mr. Clinton was draped with a red-and-white degree hood over his university robes and proceeded to speak for an hour without notes.

His free-flowing dissertation touched on global warming, solar flashlights, AIDS in Africa, community lotteries in Holland, language diversity in Papua New Guinea and the swine flu in New York.

The topics were squeezed under the umbrella of what Mr. Clinton termed the need for a "communitarian" approach to solving world problems.

"We are going to have to stumble into the future together," he concluded in a speech that combined earnestness and folksy charm, and provoked a standing ovation.

Mr. Clinton joked that as he was entering the hall, McGill principal Heather Munroe-Blum had told him he seemed to share Canadian values.

"There were many occasions when leaders of the Republican Party suggested that I might want to move to Canada," he told the audience, to laughter. "And many when I thought it wasn't a bad idea."

In her introduction of Mr. Clinton at the invitation-only event, Ms. Munroe-Blum extolled his commitment to social justice and public service, calling him "a global leader and human-rights champion of extraordinary breadth and vision."

She added: "His story is a story in personal resilience, determination and unflagging optimism."

Mr. Clinton, who can command as much as $300,000 for speeches, addressed McGill for free. His appearance, arranged through a McGill alumnus and personal friend named Victor Dahdaleh, coincided with the university's recognition of its volunteers and donors for its ongoing fundraising campaign.

Mr. Clinton is the second U.S. president to get an honorary McGill degree. Franklin Roosevelt was awarded one in 1944 at the height of the Second World War, along with British prime minister Winston Churchill.