07/07/2016 05:52 EDT | Updated 07/08/2016 02:59 EDT

Michael Chong Unimpressed With Trudeau's Remark About Quebec Nation

Michael Chong quit Harper's cabinet in 2006 over the issue.

Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong says he isn't interested in reopening old fights on the thorny matter of Quebec nationhood.

But the longtime Ontario MP was still left unimpressed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's remarks at Montreal press conference this week that "Quebec is a nation."

Appearing alongside Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, Trudeau was asked about criticism he received from Parti Quebecois leadership contender Martine Ouellet. She took umbrage with a Canada Day message in which the prime minister referred to this country as "one nation."

Tory MP Michael Chong holds a press conference in Ottawa on Monday, May 16, 2016. (Photo: Matthew Usherwood/CP)

"Canada is a nation, Quebec is a nation," Trudeau told reporters, according to the Montreal Gazette, before expressing his incredulity that the debate seemingly keeps going.

Chong famously quit Stephen Harper's cabinet in 2006 rather than support a motion from the then-prime minister recognizing that the "Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." The motion, seen by some as an attempt to trip up Liberal MPs who were running for that party's leadership, passed easily.

Chong told The Huffington Post Canada Thursday that he agrees that this matter was "settled in the democratically elected" House of Commons a decade ago.

But he also said that his personal view on the matter hasn't changed.

"I don't stick my finger in the wind to figure out which way the wind is blowing and to figure out my principles, which is what the prime minister — who once opposed this motion — is appearing to do," Chong said.

"I don't stick my finger in the wind to figure out which way the wind is blowing and to figure out my principles, which is what the prime minister – who once opposed this motion – is appearing to do."

Trudeau spoke out against Quebec nationalism in 2006, some two years before he was elected to the House. In a CTV interview at the time, Trudeau called Quebec nationalism an "old idea" and said that while "some people these days are wrapped up in this idea of nation for Quebec," the notion "stands against everything my father ever believed."

Chong said that while "reasonable people can disagree" about these issues, Trudeau needs to be consistent, particularly on "quasi-constitutional questions about the nature of the country."

"I think the incoherence and the inconsistency of his positions is dangerous," Chong said. "He's the head of government and I think he needs to be careful about what he says and I think he needs to be consistent about what he says. He's clearly not done that."

Chong does not believe the stand he took 10 years ago will hurt his support in Quebec during the leadership contest or if he becomes Tory leader.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard at Montreal press conference on Tuesday, July 5, 2016. (Photo: Ryan Remiorz/CP)

"Until the last election, Mr. Trudeau had the exact same position on the motion of 10 years ago," he said. Liberals won 40 of Quebec's 78 seats last fall.

"I want to emphasize that my candidacy is focused on strengthening Canada, it's focused on the things that unite us," he said. "I won't be revisiting old debates that focus on our differences."

Chong has "no regrets" about his decision to step down from cabinet, even if it meant he never returned to Harper's inner circle.

"I believe that you need to have convictions and principles that guide your decisions," he said.

Supported gender-neutral anthem

Though he is running to become Tory leader, Chong recently broke with most Conservatives to support the Liberal government's controversial assisted dying law and Liberal MP Mauril Belanger's private member's bill to make the national anthem gender-neutral.

Chong has made the case that he voted for the government's assisted dying legislation because he felt it contained enough restrictions to protect vulnerable Canadians. And he argued in a blog post last week that, while not perfect, it is better than no law at all.

On the emotional debate around changing 'O Canada' by replacing the lyrics "all thy sons command" with "all of us," Chong said he wished Liberals had worked to achieve consensus.

He said he ultimately voted for the change because he felt it was important to acknowledge that "Canada has changed" and, in particular, to show respect for women who serve in combat.

"Both men and women die… in the defence of Canada and its values," he said.

The only other declared candidates for the Tory leadership so far — MPs Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier — voted against changing the lyrics.

'New generation of leadership'

A belief that the country has changed is one reason Chong thinks it's time for a "new generation of leadership" in his party.

The son of a Chinese immigrant father and Dutch immigrant mother, Chong can quickly rhyme off all the cities that shut out Tories in the last election, including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

"We need to ensure that the party reflects the diversity of this country today," he said. "And that's one of the reasons why I put my name forward."

With a file from The Canadian Press

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