Canada's House of Commons is expected to pass Monday a motion recognizing the country's independence-minded Quebec province as a "nation" within the nation, a move critics brand a "bombshell" step that could splinter the country.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, after a surprise announcement last week, presented the motion asking that lawmakers "recognize that Quebecers constitute a nation within a united Canada."
The move was seen both as a symbolic benchmark and a political ploy by the conservative government, but branded by newspapers as a "political bombshell" that could encourage Quebec's separatist movement.
Autonomy and independence for Francophone Quebec is a recurring issue in Canadian politics -- the province held and lost two separatist referendums in 1980 and 1995.
But it is the first time a prime minister has recognized the concept of "nation" for the province, even if only as a symbolic gesture, said Antonia Maioni, who heads Canadian studies at Quebec's McGill University.
For McGill political science professor Eric Belanger, Harper's move is a "battle of symbols" with an ultimate political aim.
"What matters is getting back the support of Quebec voters," he said, adding that Harper's Conservative Party-led government must make inroads in Quebec's electorate if it wants to win in the next parliamentary elections widely expected in 2007.
Harper's popularity in the mainly French-speaking province has dipped dramatically lately due to his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming and a foreign policy deemed too friendly to the United States.
But Michael Ignatieff, a prominent member of the opposition Liberals, also jumped on the issue of a resolution for Quebec, earning the ire of some his own party members.
Recognizing that the concept of Quebec as a nation was difficult for many Canadians to swallow, Harper suggested a sociological definition for the term "nation": a people sharing the same language, history and culture.
Canadians often forget that French-speakers founded their country, he said.