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Guest blogpost: Conservative proposal to Quebec on constitutional reform will solve nothing.

(Forward: Joseph graduated from the University of Toronto with his Masters in Political Science in 2002, and is completing his Ph.D at the  London School of Economics in Political Science.  He was the former media director for the NO MMP campaign in the 2007 Ontario Referendum. He is currently the administrator of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Appreciation Society at Facebook.  He is also an avid blogreader. The opinions expressed by Joseph are not necessarily those of Scott’s DiaTribes).


Jean-Pierre Blackburn’s recent statements about reopening the Constitution to  recognize Quebec as a nation certainly caught the eyes of seasoned and casual observers alike. Prime Minister Stephen Harper did little to dissuade this by not categorically dismissing the suggestion that Quebec should be constitutionally recognized as a nation. We should make no mistake. The Conservative government has once again adopted their traditional Constitutional stance from the days of Robert Stanfield and Brian Mulroney, which is to cave in to soft Quebec nationalists and sovereignists in the faint hopes that the sovereignist movement will disappear once their demands are met.

This proposal will not solve anything. Rene Levesque said years ago that Quebec will keep wanting “more and more” until full sovereignty is achieved. If we go back to the days of Meech Lake, Robert Bourassa said that the devolution of powers and the distinct society clause in the Accord were just a bare minimum and that Quebec would come back with even more demands.

The reasons to oppose this recognition of Quebec as a nation are well known.  In essence it boils down to one point. Recognizing Quebec as a nation means recognizing that Canada is really two countries, where Quebec governs itself and the rest of Canada can be left to remain English or anyway it sees fit.  This scenario would mean the death of one united Canada with two languages and a multiplicity of cultures  – and it will give us separation through the back door.

This would suit the separatists just fine. Remember Levesque’s famous statement – “All we want is this corner of the earth where we can be completely ourselves” . It also turns out that it suits the Harper Conservatives as well. But we can go further.  The Constitution is not only the place that outlines and guarantees the basic institutional framework of a country and also outlines the basic rights that are guaranteed to the citizens of that country. But at the same time, the Constitution can also be an expression of the values that a country aspires to be. The best example of this is the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

We cannot place a “Quebec as a nation” clause in the Constitution. Unless of course, we want to create intractable walls of division within Canada, and say to other Canadians that they have their own piece of Canada and should stay there and not to come into our turf and tell us what to do.

The best argument I can find in favour of putting such a clause in the Constitution is to protect and promote Quebec culture.  However it is based on the faulty assumption that only the government of Quebec is capable of achieving such a goal, and that the solution is to give the Quebec government more power.  As if giving a government more power will ever solve anything.

Pierre Trudeau put it best:

“I’m as good as any English-speaking Canadian from any province. And I believe most Canadian businessmen, artists, writers, performers, sportsmen – they think they are as good as anyone else. Who needs special powers? The politicians. Naturally, because they are in the power game….You don’t need an Ontario or Quebec with more power. You have a Charter of Rights to protect you. You say you’re as good as anyone else under the Charter”.

There is an easier way to achieve the protection of Quebec culture at the constitutional level, and that is to give a constitutional veto to Quebec. The amending formula proposed by Trudeau at Victoria in 1971 gave Quebec a veto, along with Ontario. Also, two Western provinces could veto a proposal, as could two Atlantic provinces.

This amending formula – although it is unlikely to be accepted by Westerners – does give Quebec a distinctive veto (unlike Meech Lake where all provinces were offered a veto). This ensures that Quebec’s consent is needed to alter the Constitution, or at least guarantees that the Constitution cannot be amended by excluding Quebec – something that is possible with our current amending formula.

If – and this is a great if – there is a desire to renegotiate the Constitution so to ensure the protection of Quebec, the Victoria formula is a sensible solution. It does not entail giving one province excessive power to the point of rendering our federal structure impotent and ultimately divide Canada.


2 comments to Guest blogpost: Conservative proposal to Quebec on constitutional reform will solve nothing.

  • Joseph

    The federal government, much less anyone else, does not “owe” any sort of an apology to Quebec. Levesque gambled away his constitutional veto for the simple goal of roadblocking any sort of deal. He then left the Gang of Eight by offering to decide this by a referendum. He left the Gang of Eight all on his own – they did not leave him. And Claude Morin had admitted that the Quebec delegation was only there to stonewall the talks. Please have a look at Robert Shepard and Michael Valpy’s The National Deal – the finest book written on the 1982 deal IMHO.
    If you claim to be a federalist, you should not be spouting such separatist sophistry and historical revisionism as if it were historical fact.
    What you call bold is what I call caving in to unreasonable demands. I accuse the Ignatieff camp and your policy convention of doing precisely that. If the “nation” clause does not belong in the “actual text” of the Constitution, then why does it belong in the preamble? Just to make a few people happy? And do you think that separatism will go away with just that simple little recognition? Please do not delude yourself. Separatists and soft nationalists will start asking for powers to go along with that distinctness or “nationhood”. Let us not make that same mistake that Mulroney made.
    So we have to recognize “the two founding nations of Canada”? No we do not. The French and English were here first – so? Why are we to honour any culture ahead of the other just because they happen to come across Canada by accident and settle here first? Please. My culture has done as much as the English and the French in building this country – why does Quebec and “English Canada” deserve such a recognition and not Latin American Canadians or Italian Canadians? Dion put it best – why do we have to engage in sociological labelling in the Constitution?
    Also, please have a look at this.
    It’s Trudeau being interviewed by Barbara Frum about Meech Lake. He doesn’t once mention that the time was not right to move on the Constitution. He does say that the premiers should take more time thinking about putting the distinct society clause – so to get them to remove the clause. I do not fear talking about the constitution – I propose an amending formula that I think is very fair and reasonable to all parties. And moreover, it is gives Quebec a concrete capability to protect their culture that cannot be distorted into giving them any more powers.
    You would have to explain why the Victoria amending formula does a weaker job of protecting Quebec culture than a “nation” clause ANYWHERE in the Constitution. That is the goal here I think. You do not use a Constitution to right a historical wrong that in fact never happened.


  • there are several things which you attribute to soft nationalists that have never been asked for by any Liberal seeking to amend the constitution and make considerable concessions to Quebec.

    Before I get into it, the federal government should in fact apologize for not including Quebec in the first agreement. Trudeau did meet with the 9 other premiers and cut a deal behind the back of Rene Levesque. It left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Quebeckers, even if you remove the ridiculous “night of the long knives” rhetoric.

    Firstly, you bring up Victoria and I firmly believe Victoria was probably the best chance Canada had at nipping the sovereignty movement in the bud, as it happened before the PQ ever won election. Not all constitutional rounds have to emerge with an agreement. Mulroney made this mistake twice. Sometimes no agreement is reached, take a break, come back next month or next year. If Mulroney had an open consultative process where Meech could be amended, maybe Elijah Harper and co. could have had their grievances heard and something amenable to Bourassa could have been added to Meech. Trudeau made a similar mistake in 1981. He knew that after 4 or 5 attempts this round would be his last, so he wanted an agreement no matter what. His arrogance got the better of him.

    Secondly, you talk about nation recognition in the text of the constitution. Who has ever proposed that? In fact, nobody in Quebec has ever proposed it. The Ignatieff campaign and the bold group of people in the PLC(Q) policy commission never mentioned any of that. In fact, it would be most important that this recognition be placed in the preamble of the constitution, under the context of the historical importance of the two founding nations of Canada, rather than in the text of the constitution, where the courts could use it as a reason to create inequalities in Canada by claiming that because Quebec is distinct, the Constitution should apply differently. Joseph, no Liberal should support putting the recognition of Quebec as a nation anywhere but the preamble as nobody wants to use this historical reality to create inequality.

    Lastly, even Pierre Trudeau acknowledged that the Constitution did not need to be immediately amended. He said this merely 6 years abte the original document was penned. When asked by reporters when amendments were in fact necessary Trudeau replied that a generation would need to pass before we should think about amendments and that Mulroney was doing this too quickly. It has been 26 years since we last amended the constitution. It’s time we stop putting our head in the sand at the mention of the very word constitution.

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