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 moved aimed at 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.

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"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.

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.

The Quebec wing of the Liberals adopted a resolution last month recognizing Quebec as a nation "within Canada" and called for the creation of a task force to advise the next leader on how to make that status official.

Harper's motion, which will be debated later in the week, comes as his Tories languish in third place in Quebec polls, behind the Bloc Quebecois and the Liberals.

Harper said the intent of Bloc motion was clear: "It's not to recognize what Quebecers are, but what sovereignists would like them to be. For the Bloc, it's not a matter of Quebec as a nation. It's about separation. For them, `nation' means `separation."'

In Montreal, the financial and cultural capital of the French-speaking province, Lucie Ricard said she was pleased with Harper's decision to formally call Quebec a nation.

"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."

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