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Liberal leader Michael Ignatief in Vancouver, B.C. Sunday, April 17, 2011.

JONATHAN HAYWARD

Michael Ignatieff is distancing himself from dire warnings of a future separatist government in Quebec, surrendering the role of separatist-fighter to Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

Buzz over the weekend at a Parti Québécois convention led Mr. Harper to warn that rising separatist sentiment underscores the need for a majority Conservative government.

Mr. Harper's hard line toward Quebec separatists - which he embraced during the failed 2008 bid by the Liberals and NDP to form a coalition with support from the Bloc Québécois, marked a sharp departure from his first two years in office. In 2006, Mr. Harper supported a motion recognizing the Québécois as a nation and relied on the Bloc to support its first two budgets.

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Mr. Ignatieff, the leader of a party that used to relish rhetorical battles with separatists, shows no interest in such talk.

"We have to de-dramatize all of this," he said when asked about the Conservative leader's comments. "I'm completely serene as to the possible choices of Quebec voters. We have worked with governments in the past that had sovereignist convictions. We maintained national unity in the country... I would address these challenges in the same way."

Mr. Ignatieff said Quebecers have the right to choose the government they wish in next year's provincial election.

While Mr. Ignatieff's comments are consistent with his past views - he was the first to suggest recognizing Quebec as a nation during his failed Liberal leadership bid in 2006 - it highlights the ongoing shift of Liberal policy vis-a-vis Quebec.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau cemented his party's reputation as a the chief rival of separatism in 1968, when he ignored threats to his personal safety and attended the St-Jean-Baptiste parade at a time of deep tension in the province - smiling in the face of projectiles from protesters.

Jean Chrétien carried on the mantle, leading the federalist side during the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty.

As leader, Paul Martin started to shift that approach. Speaking Sunday in Vancouver with Mr. Ignatieff, he stressed his policy of "asymmetrical federalism," an approach supported by the current Liberal leader that allows special side deals for Quebec in national initiatives.

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"What is good in Canada is that we have these discussions regarding our future in a respectful atmosphere of discussion," said Mr. Ignatieff. "Outside the country it surprises people, how we have our debates on the place of Quebec in Canada and all that. It continues. It will always continue and I'm confident of the results."

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