TORONTO (AP) – Prime Minister Stephen Harper stunned Parliament on Wednesday by introducing a motion recognizing the French-speaking province of Quebec as a nation within Canada – a symbolic move pre-empting Quebec’s separatist party which intends to do the same.

The Bloc Quebecois said it intends to introduce a motion Thursday that states Quebec is a nation. But the wording of that motion apparently does not include the words “within Canada,” leaving federalists to worry it could be misinterpreted.

The flap has reignited passions over whether the French-speaking province should be given independence. Quebecers have twice voted down referendums seeking independence from Canada; the last one was narrowly defeated in 1995.

“Do Quebecers form a nation within a united Canada? The answer is yes,” Harper told a cheering House of Commons to numerous standing ovations. “Do Quebecers form an independent nation? The answer is no – and it will always be no.”

Harper said the Bloc Quebecois motion was an “unusual request” that could lead to another referendum for Quebec independence.

The issue resurfaced when Michael Ignatieff, a front-runner for the Liberal Party leadership, said the French language, history and culture mark Quebecers as a separate people who should be recognized as a nation under the Constitution.

In Montreal, Lucie Ricard said she was pleased with Harper’s decision. “The prime minister doesn’t want to lose us, so he will do everything to keep us,” said Ricard, who works in a dry cleaner and voted against the 1995 referendum.

“That’s fine by me. He’s playing it safe.”

The Liberals, whose lost power to the Conservatives in January after nearly 13 years, will convene their national convention in Montreal next week and choose their next leader.

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