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Ignatieff warns on Quebec but stresses his commitment to national unity

Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, said Tuesday that remarks he made earlier about Quebec separation were taken out of context and have caused distress to federalists across the country, both francophone and anglophone.

"Since I passionately want Quebec to remain part of the Canadian fabric and since these friends have defended this idea with courage and pride, it causes me pain to think that anything I said could be used against a cause – the national unity of my country – that they and I hold dear," Mr Ignatieff says in a letter to the editor of The Globe and Mail about a Canadian Press story published Monday on .

The CP story said Mr. Ignatieff warned in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation that the country is drifting towards a breakup.

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It quoted Mr. Ignatieff as telling his audience that, whatever happens in the upcoming Scottish referendum, the United Kingdom will inevitably change as a result.

As an example, Mr. Ignatieff pointed to Canada's experience with the Quebec sovereignty movement.

He said Canada reacted by transferring power to Quebec to satisfy its growing aspirations for autonomy – but he suggested that situation is only temporary.

"It's a kind of way station – you stop there for a while," Mr. Ignatieff said.

"But I think the logic, eventually, is independence. Full independence."

Asked by his Scottish interviewer whether he was talking about independence for both Quebec and Scotland, Mr. Ignatieff replied: "I think, eventually, that's where it goes."

In his letter Tuesday to the editor of The Globe, Mr. Ignatieff clarified those remarks.

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"The interview on the issue of the referendum on Scottish independence made clear that Canada offers an internationally recognized model for the conciliation of political differences.

"I also shared my concerns about the future of this country: We must not drift apart and we must not allow illusions about each other to divide us. Canada is bigger than our differences. We need to affirm our faith in a country that has always proved strong enough to embrace the national identities, language and culture of us all.

"I oppose the separation of Canada and Quebec, as I oppose the separation of Scotland and the United Kingdom. We need to face threats to our unity with determination and resolve. The argument we need to make to our fellow citizens who choose the separatist option ought to appeal to hope rather than fear. 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.

"If any of these themes – which I have believed all my life –failed to make their way into my interview with the Scottish broadcasters, I can only reaffirm them now to my federalist friends across Canada and repeat that I will never betray the cause that we share."

After leading the Liberals to a historic defeat in the May 2, 2011, federal election, the longtime journalist and academic returned to a teaching job at the University of Toronto.

In that election, Quebec actually abandoned the separatist Bloc Québécois – but since then there has been a revival of nationalist fortunes in the province, with the Parti Québécois now flying high in the polls at the provincial level.

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Mr. Ignatieff said in the BBC interview that he's saddened to see how Canada and Quebec have become isolated, with the optimism of decades past having given way to disillusionment.

"The problem here is we don't have anything to say to each other anymore," he said. "There's a kind of contract of mutual indifference, which is very striking for someone of my generation."

It wasn't always this way, he told his British audience.

When he was younger, Mr. Ignatieff suggested, Quebec played a central role in the Canadian identity.

"I can't think of this country without Quebec. Je parle francais. And when I think about being a Canadian, speaking French is part of it," Mr. Ignatieff said.

"But that's not the way most English Canadians now think of their country. They might have done 30 or 40 years ago, when we thought we could live together in this strange hybrid country called Canada.

"Now effectively, we're almost two separate countries."

Reports of Mr. Ignatieff's comments prompted some dismay from his federalist allies – along with some head-scratching from friends and foes alike.

Especially puzzling to some were the examples he chose to show how Canada had devolved power to Quebec, as a response to the independence movement and what he called the "near-death experience" of the 1995 referendum.

Mr. Ignatieff cited immigration, natural-resources development, education and health care as examples of powers that had been transferred to Quebec in order to keep peace with the nationalists. "We've kept the show on the road by (making) Quebec essentially master in their own house," he said, rattling off those examples.

But some of those examples he cited are as old as the country itself, and date back to Canada's 1867 Constitution Act.

Mr. Ignatieff's observation surprised more than one prominent Quebec sovereigntist.

"Did anyone see these (new powers) fly by?" Josee Legault asked, rhetorically, on her Twitter page.

"I believe Quebec got the 'radical new power' of camping out at UNESCO's Canadian delegation."

Soon after taking office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave Quebec a quasi-official role at UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural organization, and also declared the Quebecois a nation in a House of Commons motion.

But those early overtures to nationalists did not translate into more seats in Quebec for Harper's Tories.

After the last federal election, the Harper government angered Quebec nationalists by appointing non-French-speaking people to key federal positions and reviving symbols of the monarchy that had previously been allowed to fade into the background.

Those moves coincided with an eruption of language debates in Quebec last summer. The PQ, which hopes to win an election that must be held by late next year, has seized on those so-called "identity" issues.

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