Gerard Kennedy will break ranks with his party to become the only major contender for the Liberal leadership to oppose Stephen Harper's motion to recognize Québécois as a nation within Canada, reviving fears of a divided party convention this week.
Mr. Kennedy will release a statement today expressing his opposition to the resolution as the wrong choice for Canada, according to campaign insiders, because he believes it is ill-defined and has raised a variety of interpretations that could lead to greater misunderstanding between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
He becomes the only one of the four major contenders for the Liberal leadership to oppose the motion, although Stéphane Dion and Bob Rae distanced themselves from it yesterday. Front-runner Michael Ignatieff has endorsed it.
The resolution could reignite a divisive convention battle that the Liberals thought they had narrowly avoided when Mr. Harper unexpectedly introduced a motion calling for Quebeckers to be recognized as a nation within a united Canada -- countering a Bloc Québécois version. A similar Liberal Party resolution, endorsed by Mr. Ignatieff, sparked a backlash against his campaign from Liberals outside Quebec, and his rivals, notably Mr. Rae and Mr. Dion, criticized the Liberal motion as divisive.
Mr. Kennedy, who had acted as peacemaker in that battle and preached a calming of emotions, may now emerge as the leader of those who oppose recognizing Quebec as a nation, although campaign insiders said he does not want to be a rallying point for opponents.
With the Conservative motion set to pass in the House today, Mr. Ignatieff can lay claim to initiating a discussion that now has all-party endorsement -- including two of his three rivals, with caveats.
Mr. Rae, who had hammered Mr. Ignatieff over the Liberal Party resolution, expressed qualms about Mr. Harper's version but said last week that he would support it, noting that Liberal MPs will vote for it. He avoided the politically risky step of opposing the motion and potentially being seen in Quebec as a rigid old-guard federalist. Yesterday, however, he said he would not have taken Mr. Harper's step if he were prime minister himself.
Mr. Kennedy will argue that Mr. Harper put forward the motion for political gain and that the country should be focusing on what it means to be Canadian, and not nations within nations, aides said.
A senior adviser said he warned Mr. Kennedy that his opposition is politically dangerous and probably will not help his chances at the convention. But it could boost his chances with the many Liberals who are opposed and looking for someone to carry their fight.
Mr. Kennedy is the only one of the four major contenders with virtually no delegate support in Quebec, where he won less than 2 per cent of the delegates elected two months ago.
Almost all Liberal MPs, including the leading supporters of Mr. Kennedy's own campaign -- such as Ontario co-chair Mark Holland -- have backed Mr. Harper's motion.
Over the summer, Mr. Kennedy expressed acceptance of the concept of Quebec as a nation in public forums, but advisers said he did not like the suggestion in the Liberal resolution that it be "officialized."
They said Mr. Kennedy decided against Mr. Harper's motion after seeing Quebec Premier Jean Charest suggest that it could lead to further powers for the province and separatist leaders such as Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe argue that it might help their cause in the future.
All parties have now supported the motion, as have three of the four major Liberal contenders -- the three who have large numbers of delegates from Quebec. But Mr. Rae and Mr. Dion have repeatedly sought to assert their qualms, knowing that many Liberals outside Quebec are uncomfortable with the move.
"If I was Prime Minister of Canada, is this something I would have presented to the House? No. I would simply have voted down the Bloc resolution," Mr. Rae said yesterday as a guest on CBC radio's Cross Country Checkup.
"If that's what Mr. Harper and company want to do, we will all have to live with it. But I think it's important to stress this cannot become a fixation for Canada."
Mr. Harper may have removed an albatross from around Mr. Ignatieff's neck with his nation motion, but Mr. Rae said the Conservative move does not hurt his campaign. "I don't think, by the way, this whole thing has affected the leadership race one way or the other frankly," he told CTV's Question Period.
Mr. Dion was a guest on the same radio show. He reminded listeners of his work against separatism as the minister responsible for national unity in Jean Chrétien's government.
"I don't think it's a priority for us to count the number of nations we have in our country," Mr. Dion said. "As leader of the Liberal Party and I hope prime minister of Canada, I will have another priority than to do that."
Before doing the radio show, Mr. Dion campaigned in London, Ont., to support Liberal candidate Glen Pearson's bid to win a federal by-election.
Mr. Ignatieff kept a lower profile yesterday, telephoning delegates from the privacy of a Montreal hotel room. Mr. Kennedy was doing the same in Toronto, his campaign having received a boost from an endorsement by Thomas Axworthy, a high-profile Liberal and former principal secretary to prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Mr. Axworthy, the brother of former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, said he waited until the campaign's final days to reveal his preference because of his position as co-chair of the party's renewal commission. He said he was swayed partly by Mr. Kennedy's intention to increase grassroots involvement in the party.