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Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the historic step Wednesday of recognizing Quebeckers as a nation within Canada, a move that won immediate support from the other federalist parties and thrust the country back into the divisive national unity debate.

Mr. Harper's dramatic intervention was explicitly addressed at a Bloc Québécois motion that was intended to underline rifts within the Liberal Party over Quebec's status in the week before its leadership convention.

The Bloc had planned to force MPs to take a stand Thursday by asking whether they believed Quebeckers to be a nation - without the words that expressed support for national unity.

But the Liberals and New Democrats rose to their feet to join the Conservatives in prolonged applause when Mr. Harper introduced a motion that "this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada."

It was also enthusiastically embraced by Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Liberal Michael Ignatieff, whose support for Quebec's status as a nation has roiled the leadership campaign of a party that has traditionally styled itself as the leading proponent of national unity.

While many Liberals were jubilant at the effective nullification of the Bloc scheme, the party could find itself split when the vote is taken. Many in the party's ranks are traditional government centralists, and recognizing Quebeckers as a nation - even within Canada - will give them pause.

The motion could also rehabilitate the Tories in Quebec, where they have been losing popularity since the summer.

On the floor of the House of Commons, however, Mr. Harper's finesse provided a rare moment of unanimity among the federalist parties, and a moment for the Prime Minister to wear the statesman's cloak.

"The leader of the Bloc and his separatist friends are not concerned with defining who Quebeckers are but rather what they want them to become, a separate country," he told Parliament.

"Our position is clear. Do the Québécois form a nation within Canada? The answer is yes. Do the Québécois form an independent nation? The answer is no," he said.

"And the answer will always be no," Mr. Harper continued, "because Quebeckers of all political persuasions, from Cartier and Laurier to Mulroney and Trudeau, have led this country, and millions like them of all political persuasions have helped to build it."

Mr. Harper's motion will likely be put to a vote Monday. The Bloc motion will come a day later - after the Prime Minister has left for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Europe.

The unusual turn of events began when Mr. Harper approached Liberal Leader Bill Graham and NDP Leader Jack Layton late Tuesday to suggest that the federalist parties put up a unified defence.

He met again with Mr. Graham Wednesday morning to outline his plan and to suggest a wording. But it wasn't until just before Mr. Harper spoke in the House that Mr. Graham decided to endorse him.

"The applause in this House to the Prime Minister's words indicate clearly in this House the devotion of all federalist members in this House to the cause, first and foremost, of Canada, beyond all partisan purposes," Mr. Graham said in an eloquent address that will likely mark his last major discourse in Parliament as party leader.

"On behalf of my party, I tell the Prime Minister we will work with all parties in the House, with all members who have the interests of all Canadians at heart, to adopt a solution that respects Quebec and Quebeckers and gives them that future within this wonderful country of ours."

Mr. Harper then rose from his seat and crossed the floor to shake the Liberal Leader's hand.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe was indignant and angry. The question of whether Quebeckers are a nation is more than symbolic, he told the House. "It is the most fundamental question for Quebeckers and it is also fundamental for Canadians."

Mr. Layton said his party will support both the Bloc motion and the one tabled by Mr. Harper, adding that the NDP has for decades supported the notion that Quebeckers are a nation.

The Liberals will decide this morning how they will vote and Mr. Graham said he is confident that his caucus will be united in carrying the motion forward.

Mr. Ignatieff seized on the motion as one that will breathe new life into his campaign while challenger Bob Rae and third-place Gerard Kennedy declined to comment.

Stéphane Dion, the fourth-place Liberal leadership contender viewed by some as a potential middle choice between Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Rae, said he will vote for Mr. Harper's motion, calling it similar to compromises he has proposed.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest called the motion an important step for national unity and a sign of major progress for Quebec. Ned Franks, professor emeritus at Queen's University and a leading authority on Parliament, said Mr. Harper is "playing with fire."

"It risks becoming the first step in a slippery slope, because of that equating of nation with nation state," he said.

But Guy Laforest, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City, said the Prime Minister made a positive move.

"He wants to present himself as somebody that has an articulate understanding of Canada as a federal political community. And now he can say ... that he sees Quebec as a nation within that," he said.

With a report from Hayley Mick in Toronto

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