OTTAWA - Michael Ignatieff has clarified he doesn't actually believe Quebec's secession from Canada is inevitable.
The former Liberal leader was forced to backpedal Tuesday after his prediction of Canada's eventual breakup was repudiated by federalist allies, the party he used to lead and, most directly, by his former college roommate, old friend and erstwhile leadership rival, Bob Rae.
"Nothing is inevitable in politics and nothing would be so undesirable as separation," Ignatieff said in an email to The Canadian Press.
In an attached letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail newspaper, Ignatieff proclaimed his unwavering belief in Canadian unity.
"Remarks of mine, taken out of context in an interview with BBC Scotland, have caused some distress to federalist friends across the country, both francophone and anglophone," he wrote.
"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."
Ignatieff went on say he opposes the separation of Quebec from Canada, as well as that of Scotland from the United Kingdom, and assured his federalist friends that he will "never betray the cause that we share."
The volte face followed a day in which Ignatieff's interview was hailed by Quebec separatists, denounced by federalists and used by Conservatives and New Democrats to try to further sideline the Liberal party, which has long portrayed itself as the party of national unity.
Ignatieff told the BBC that Canada underwent a "pretty radical devolution" of powers to Quebec after the near-death experience in the 1995 referendum. He called decentralization "a kind of way station."
"You stop there for a while but I think the logic eventually is independence, full independence."
Citing Quebec's control over immigration, natural resource development, health and education, he also said that Canada and Quebec are effectively "almost two separate countries" already.
Rae, the interim Liberal leader, didn't mince words when asked about Ignatieff's thesis.
"I think that's completely wrong, on two counts," Rae said.
He noted Canada has always been a relatively decentralized federation and said Ignatieff's assertion that Quebec gained radical new powers after the 1995 referendum is "just factually incorrect."
Rae said provinces have always had jurisdiction over health, education and natural resources.
"That's called the Constitution of Canada. That was passed in 1867."
Rae also categorically rejected Ignatieff's prediction that Quebec's secession is inevitable.
"I don't think that in any way, shape or form separation is inevitable. Quite the opposite. I think a glorious future for Canada and Quebec lies in a great federation which Canada is. And I actually don't think Michael Ignatieff thinks it is either."
Rae said Ignatieff sent him an email first thing Tuesday morning "saying that he hoped no one would think that he thought that the dissolution of the country was inevitable, he never thought that at all."
Other federalist allies were equally puzzled by Ignatieff's remarks.
"What I will tell you is a strong majority of Quebecers believe in Canada," Quebec Premier Jean Charest said in Montreal.
He agreed with Ignatieff — that the country is a decentralized federation — and he said "important progress" has been made on that score since he took office nine years ago. But he said he hadn't heard Ignatieff's interview so he couldn't comment further.
A poll on Quebecers' attitudes, coincidentally, appeared in Tuesday's Montreal La Presse newspaper.
It pegged support for independence at 36 per cent — well below the historic highs of the early 1990s and even lower than the level in the first sovereignty referendum, more than three decades ago. The CROP online poll of 1,000 Quebecers was conducted from April 18 to 23.
Ignatieff's BBC interview prompted a gleeful response from Quebec sovereigntists. The Bloc Quebecois praised Ignatieff for having travelled Canada, observing it, and finally understanding that it deserved to be two separate countries.
Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois also had high praise: "In my opinion, he remains a high-level intellectual."
But federalists in Quebec City and Ottawa worked to play down the remarks.
Stephane Dion, longtime unity warrior and one-time Liberal leader whom Ignatieff replaced at the helm of the party, suggested Ignatieff was simply voicing frustration that everyone in the country feels from time to time. But he said the result of sticking together is worth it.
"Sometimes, all of us may have moments of doubt — and after a while we keep hope that we'll keep our country together and we continue to fight for it," Dion, now the Liberals' intergovernmental affairs critic, said in an interview.
Dion noted that there has always been a "lively debate" over whether Canada is too centralized or decentralized. He said he believes the flexible, decentralized nature of Canada's federation has actually made it a model to the rest of the world.
Montreal MP Justin Trudeau conceded Ignatieff's remarks were "not helpful."
"But those of us who are continuing to fight for a united Canada and for Quebec's strong place within Canada, we'll prove Mr. Ignatieff wrong in the long run."
However, Trudeau recently landed in hot water himself for suggesting he'd maybe support Quebec independence if he thought Prime Minister Stephen Harper's values were really those of Canada.
Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore pointed to the musings of both Trudeau and Ignatieff to assert: "The Liberal party has lost its way on a number of files. ... Now they're all over the place on the national unity file. They're lost in the woods and I think it's showing."
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said Ignatieff's "defeatist attitude" and "totally disconnected comments" show why the Liberals have been all but shut out of Quebec. He said the New Democrats, who took an historic 59 of 75 Quebec seats last May, are the new party of national unity.
"For the first time in a generation, Quebec has voted majoritarily for a pan-Canadian party, a federalist party, the NDP," Mulcair said.
"As a federalist in Quebec, I've always fought to keep Quebec in Canada. Now as a federal politician, I'm fighting very hard so that Canada makes a place for Quebec where nobody loses and everybody wins."
— With files from Alexander Panetta in Montreal