Federalists were taken aback. Separatists were overjoyed. What is certain is that comments made by former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff about the inevitability of Quebec sovereignty shocked and bewildered friends and foes alike.
In a letter to The Globe and Mail on Tuesday, Mr. Ignatieff tried to calm the debate by saying his remarks made during a BBC interview about the Scottish independence referendum expected in 2014 were taken out of context.
"I oppose the separation of Canada and Quebec, as I oppose the separation of Scotland and the United Kingdom, and we need to face any threats to our unity with determination and resolve," Mr. Ignatieff explained in his letter. "We are stronger together than apart, stronger in the embrace of our differences and stronger in the prosperous life we have built together over the centuries."
In the BBC interview, he said that, domestically, Quebec acts as though it were already sovereign, and that Scotland will do the same. "Over time the two societies will move ever, ever further apart. That is I think what the Canadian example will tell you," he said. "It's kind of a way station. You stop there for a while. But I think the logic eventually is independence, full independence."
Despite his expression of regret over the "distress" his remarks may have caused, Mr. Ignatieff's suggestion that Canada and Quebec were drifting apart caught federalists off-guard.
"What I will tell you is a strong majority of Quebeckers believe in Canada," Quebec Premier Jean Charest told reporters in Montreal. Then he jumped on the opportunity to attack Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois. "Her priority and that of the PQ is Quebec independence, not the economy."
Mr. Charest had refused to give the BBC an interview on the same subject.
Stephen Harpers' Conservatives said it was "astonishing" for the former the Liberal leader to suggest openly that Quebec will eventually separate. "We have Michael Ignatieff ... saying that this country is going to be ruined no matter what because Liberals aren't in power is an arrogant, narcissistic and irresponsible position," Heritage Minister James Moore said.
During the televised interview, Mr. Ignatieff said that based on the Canadian experience, the Scottish independence referendum would forever change politics in the United Kingdom. "So either way, win or lose, the game is going to change," he said, adding that Scotland would end up with more powers. He warned that holding a referendum would create a irreparable rift as it did between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
"We had a near death experience in 1995 ... What we learned from that was that the way to keep the show on the road was pretty radical devolution, and effectively, Quebec is master in their own house. ... The problem here is that we don't have anything to say to each other anymore. There is a kind of contract of indifference ... Now effectively, effectively, we are almost two separate countries," Mr. Ignatieff said.
In Ottawa, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae condemned the remarks.
"There is no culture of indifference in Canada. There is no calling into question the Liberals' commitment to national unity," Mr. Rae said.
Ms. Marois concluded that to have a prominent federalist arrive at the same conclusion as herself was another sign that her cause was just. "We have been convinced for years. But I would say that history is moving quickly....Mr. Ignatieff is a prominent intellectual and I am pleased to hear him say these things."