Con­sti­tu­tional di­vide

Que­bec pa­per won’t open up talks, but it’s an in­ter­est­ing read

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT -

Ti­tled “Be­ing Québé­cois: It’s our way of be­ing Cana­di­ans,” Que­bec’s most comprehensive pa­per on its place in the fed­er­a­tion in more than 20 years is lit­tle more than a bot­tle thrown in the ocean.

Premier Philippe Couil­lard has no real ex­pec­ta­tion that it will be fished out any time soon, if ever. He would prob­a­bly be the first to be sur­prised if his ini­tia­tive led to any kind of a con­sti­tu­tional de­noue­ment.

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau is not about to let the con­sti­tu­tional ge­nie out of the bot­tle, and not just be­cause the prospect of a suc­cess­ful res­o­lu­tion of Que­bec’s con­sti­tu­tional agenda is dim at best.

Even if Trudeau did not have his hands full on the Canada-U.S. front, there is no in­di­ca­tion that he is more en­am­oured of Que­bec’s cen­tral de­mand for the for­mal recog­ni­tion of its distinc­tive­ness than his fa­ther was.

The cur­rent prime min­is­ter was not yet an MP at the time of Stephen Harper’s 2006 Que­bec na­tion mo­tion. He did not cast a vote.

But the is­sue was also a defin­ing fea­ture of that same fall’s Lib­eral lead­er­ship race. In that cam­paign Trudeau cast his lot with for­mer On­tario min­is­ter Ger­ald Kennedy, the lead­ing can­di­date who was most vo­cal in his op­po­si­tion to the mo­tion.

For his part, Con­ser­va­tive leader An­drew Scheer cut his teeth in pol­i­tics on the Re­form side of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment at a time when op­po­si­tion to the con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion of Que­bec’s dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter was one of the party’s core dogma. He is not about to start his ten­ure by go­ing to war with part of his base.

The only dif­fer­ence be­tween his re­sponse to Que­bec’s pol­icy pa­per and Trudeau’s was that the Con­ser­va­tive re­but­tal was de­liv­ered more po­litely.

The NDP’s Thomas Mul­cair did have good words for Couil­lard’s ini­tia­tive. But he sounded more like the for­mer Que­bec Lib­eral that he is than the fed­eral leader who, in the last elec­tion, seemed to sug­gest that he could ne­go­ti­ate the abo­li­tion of the se­nate with­out en­gag­ing in a full-fledged Que­bec round.

Un­less Mul­cair’s suc­ces­sor wants to cam­paign on re­open­ing the Que­bec/Canada con­sti­tu­tional front in 2019, the NDP might con­sider set­ting aside its se­nate plank.

At this junc­ture, it is far from clear that Que­be­cers are keener than other Cana­di­ans to pick up the con­sti­tu­tional de­bate where it was left off in the mid-’90s.

But, be that as it may, they and not their coun­ter­parts in the rest of Canada are the prime tar­get au­di­ence for Couil­lard’s bid.

The Parti Québé­cois is not the only Que­bec party that has used sovereignty as the glue to bind its sup­port­ers; since 1995, the fear of a re­turn to ref­er­en­dum pol­i­tics has driven scores of vot­ers to the Lib­er­als.

Now that PQ leader Jean-François Lisée has ruled out a ref­er­en­dum un­til at least 2023, vot­ers who used the Lib­er­als as an in­surance pol­icy against a re­turn of the sovereign­tists to power are freer to look else­where. Re­cent polls sug­gest that quite a few are giv­ing the na­tion­al­ist Coali­tion Avenir Que­bec an­other look. It is now the lead­ing party among fran­co­phone vot­ers.

Time will tell whether mov­ing his con­sti­tu­tional agenda from the stor­age room to the Lib­eral win­dow will al­low premier Couil­lard to stop some of his 2014 sup­port­ers from shop­ping else­where. It could be that the Que­bec Lib­er­als can no more hang on to the favourable align­ment that has kept them in power for most of the post-ref­er­en­dum era than their sovereign­tist foes could main­tain the mo­men­tum that al­most gave them a vic­tory in 1995.

Since then, both have equally failed to ad­vance their con­sti­tu­tional agen­das.

All that be­ing said, this pol­icy pa­per should be a must-read for any­one on Par­lia­ment Hill or in a pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal who wants to know what to ex­pect when deal­ing with the prov­ince.

The doc­u­ment amounts to al­most 200 pages of cheat codes to grasp the ra­tio­nale that guides Que­bec and its Na­tional Assem­bly in their deal­ings with their fed­er­a­tion part­ners.

As the pa­per notes, those deal­ings ex­tend far be­yond the rel­a­tively nar­row field of Que­bec’s long­stand­ing con­sti­tu­tional con­cerns.

It was writ­ten un­der the su­per­vi­sion of the prov­ince’s most fed­er­al­ist party. But a non-Lib­eral gov­ern­ment, op­er­at­ing within the ex­ist­ing Cana­dian frame­work, would bring lit­tle more to the fed­er­al­provin­cial files than vari­a­tions along the same themes.

Long­time Que­bec-watch­ers will be fa­mil­iar with the pa­per’s rhetoric and the au­tonomist thread that runs through it. That thread pre­dates the 1960 Que­bec Quiet Rev­o­lu­tion. The news, if any, is that, when it comes to its re­la­tion­ship to fed­er­al­ism, there is noth­ing fun­da­men­tally new un­der the Que­bec sun.

Chan­tal Hébert is a na­tional af­fairs writer. Her col­umn ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers.

CHAN­TAL HÉBERT

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