OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau used Valentine's Day to proclaim his undying love for Canada — two days after appearing to suggest there are conditions under which he might support Quebec's secession.
The Montreal Liberal MP initially declined to explain what he meant in a weekend radio interview, in which he suggested he might support separation if he felt Canada had truly adopted the values espoused by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives.
Rather, he declared it "ridiculous" to question his devotion to a united country.
"I live this country in my bones, every breath I take and I'm not going to stand here and somehow defend that I actually do love Canada because we know I love Canada," he told reporters Tuesday.
Trudeau later told CBC's Power and Politics he had been trying to issue a wake up call to Canadians, about how millions of Quebecers do not recognize themselves in the values promoted by the Harper government.
But he then muddied the waters further by repeating that he might favour the separation of Quebec should Harper succeed in imposing his values on Canada.
"Then I have to say, well, do I then change my values and agree with him or do I say, well, maybe there isn't room for me in this country anymore? These are honest, difficult reflections."
Trudeau went on to say "the separatist option is not the bogeyman it used to be. You ask me who the bogeyman is, it's the one sitting in our prime minister's chair right now."
Trudeau started the controversy with similar comments during a weekend radio interview with Radio-Canada.
"I always say that if I ever believed Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper and we were going against abortion and going against gay marriage, and we were going backward in 10,000 different ways, maybe I'd think of wanting to make Quebec a country,'' he said Sunday.
Separatist and federalist rivals alike pounced Tuesday on Trudeau's comments.
Bloc Quebecois MPs welcomed "with open arms" what they described as Trudeau's realization that Quebec's values are not shared by the federal government or the rest of the country.
"Good news!" rejoiced Maria Mourani.
"Finally, he has understood," echoed Andre Bellavance.
Rival federalist parties expressed incredulity that the son of late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, arch-nemesis of Quebec sovereigntists, might actually be a closet separatist.
"(Trudeau) grew up hearing about a strong, united Canada, but just last week he said he would favour Quebec independence," Tory MP Merv Tweed told the Commons, demanding that Trudeau clarify or recant his remarks.
Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel, who has faced her own controversy over past membership in the separatist Bloc Quebecois, took the opportunity to burnish her own federalist credentials.
"I will let (Trudeau) choose his party, if he wants to go to Quebec, but for me and for the (New Democratic) party we are clear: we’re a federalist party and we represent all Canadians," she said.
But interim Liberal leader Bob Rae shrugged off the controversy, saying: "Mr. Trudeau is a strong believer in a united Canada. He always has been, he always will be."
He suggested Trudeau's criticism of the Harper government should not be confused with criticism of the country.
"Mr. Harper is the interim prime minister," Rae asserted. "He's here today, he'll be gone tomorrow. You should never confuse one man with the whole country. The country is much bigger and much greater than any one person."
For his part, Trudeau initially tried to clarify, through Twitter, that he was not suggesting he'd ever be OK with Quebec seceding.
In fact, he said he meant "exactly the opposite: Canada needs (Quebec) to balance out Harper's vision that I (and many) don't support."
In a subsequent scrum with reporters, Trudeau said millions of Canadians do not see their values reflected by the Harper government. He raged that the Tories are trying to erase basic freedoms and have lowered the level of political debate by accusing opponents of being akin to Hitler or aligned with pedophiles.
"Canadians shouldn't be asking 'Ooh, does Justin Trudeau actually want to separate?' Of course not," he fumed.
"But will Justin Trudeau fight with his very last breath to make sure that this Canada stays the Canada that we collectively know it can be? Absolutely."