Chong says, "Take this cabinet position and fill it."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Prime Minister may have traded one type of unity for an other, as on the eve of the historic Parliament vote to officially recognize Quebec as "nation united within Canada", one of Stephen Harper’s own cabinet members said, “Not me.”

Michael Chong, Conservative MP for the riding of Halton (just east of Guelph) and cabinet minister of intergovernmental affairs and sport, announced that he was resigning from cabinet over the decision to officially recognize Quebec as a “nation” within Canada. “It is for that fundamental principle that I cannot support the motion recognizing the Quebecois as a nation,” Chong told the press on Parliament Hill yesterday afternoon. “I believe that recognizing the Quebecois as a nation, even within a united Canada, is nothing else than the recognition of an ethnic nationalism, and that I cannot support.”

Harper’s bombshell announcement last Wednesday was a pre-emptive measure to beat a similar Bloc Quebecois motion to the floor of the House. The status of Quebec’s status had also been an issue of contention in the Liberal Leadership race in the weeks leading up to last night’s vote.

Before his declaration of intent to recognize the unique status of Quebecers, Harper consulted with Liberal interim-leader Bill Graham, NDP boss Jack Layton and Liberal leadership dark horse candidate Stephane Dion. After some initial outrage, Bloc leader Giles Duceppe also came around Friday, saying that he was throwing the support of himself and his party behind federal recognition of Quebec’s nationness.

But Chong was no alone in his opposition to the motion as 16 MPs, including the original maverick Garth Turner and 15 Liberals, voted “nay”. However, the motion still passed with 266 votes “for”. And although Chong wasn’t counted as present (giving up the cabinet post allowed him to abstain from the vote and remain in the Conservative caucus), the motion did bring out rare appearances from Michael Ignatieff and Paul Martin.

After the vote, Harper felt pretty good that this was case closed on that whole sovereignty thing. “Canadians across the country said yes to Quebecers and Quebecers said yes to Canada," Harper said. "In politics you take risks. That's what we did, but national unity, national reconciliation are more important than any one party or than any one individual."

Chong’s opposition stemmed from a belief that the Canadian government shouldn’t recognize so-called “ethnic nationalism” and that the motion will open more doors that it closes. “I also believe that recognizing the Quebecois as a nation will provide the sovereigntists with an argument that they will use to confuse Quebeckers in any future debate on sovereignty,” said Chong in his statement. “They will argue if the Quebecois are a nation within Canada, the Quebecois are a certainly a nation without Canada.”

Hearing Duceppe talk after the vote, it would seem that Chong was oddly prophetic in his remarks. "We're a nation within Canada now and we'll be a nation and a sovereign country in the near future," said Duceppe.

In a follow-up interview, Chong said that he had first raised his objections to Harper's Quebec resolution behind closed-doors at a caucus meeting last week and that he’s been mulling it over for the last five days before reaching his decision and telling the PM on Monday morning. "We chatted about it and I explained to him my position and he was very gracious," said Chong, who previously told reporters that, “the Prime Minister was presented with a difficult dilemma by the Bloc Quebecois, and I do not fault him for what he felt he had to do.”

Despite leaving cabinet, Chong says that he will continue on as a backbencher and that he still believes in the PM and the government agenda. “I also have faith in the Prime Minister and in the government's agenda. I believe that the government is on the right track with its accountability package, with its environmental initiatives, with its crime and justice agenda and with its economic plan, and I believe Canadians do as well. I also believe in our party. I have been a life long conservative and remain so.”

Chong's replacement will be Ontario Tory Peter Van Loan, who has spent the past few months in the unenviable position of being the parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay.

Sources: The National Post and the Halton Herald.

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