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Unshackled from the restraints of presidential office, Bill Clinton dropped any pretence of neutrality on the national-unity file yesterday and bluntly welcomed an undivided Canada.

Using the podium of an honorary-doctorate ceremony at McGill University, the former U.S. president seized on the august occasion to highlight Canada's perennial national-unity debate.

"You have occasional votes about whether you ought not to be together," he told about 700 people in the audience. "I'm glad you didn't get a divorce," he said, prompting applause.

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In a tacit acknowledgment that he had to hold his tongue in office, he added: "The great thing about not being president is you can say whatever you want."

Endorsements from American presidents were hotly sought by both sides during national-unity crises, but U.S. leaders tended to steer clear from appearing to meddle in Canada's internal affairs.

Mr. Clinton did offer carefully worded support to the federalist side during his presidency, notably in Mont Tremblant in 1999 when he held up Canadian federalism as a model for the world. But the foreign-policy mantra of the United States has been to support Canadian unity while leaving it up to Canadians and Quebeckers to decide.

Yesterday's nod to federalism was only one of several references to Canada in an acceptance speech that dwelled broadly on the theme of working for the global common good.

Ushered into the hall by a Black Watch piper, Mr. Clinton was draped with a red-and-white degree hood over his university robes and proceeded to speak for an hour without notes.

His free-flowing dissertation touched on global warming, solar flashlights, AIDS in Africa, community lotteries in Holland, language diversity in Papua New Guinea and the swine flu in New York.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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