(Policy papers 2012-2013)
Canadians should reject the defeatist contention that keeping Quebec within our country is a lost cause. Quebec’s provincial government may set itself apart, but Quebecers can see beyond the politics of division. Although Canada’s decentralized federal structure is a successful model for the world, what we share across the nation is more fundamental: the beliefs and principles of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Quebecers and other Canadians can and must work together to build a stronger sense of Canadian nationhood and meet the daunting challenges of the 21st century.
Les Canadiens devraient rejeter l’assertion défaitiste qui dit que garder le Québec dans notre pays est une cause perdue. Le gouvernement québécois peut bien se considérer à part, les Québécois, eux, peuvent voir au-delà de la politique de division. Bien que la structure fédérale décentralisée du Canada soit une modèle réussi pour le reste du monde, ce que nous partageons est fondamental : ce sont les croyances et principes de la Charte des droits et libertés. Les Québécois et les autres Canadiens peuvent et doivent travailler ensemble pour construire un sens plus fort du statut de la nation du Canada, et affronter les défis redoutables du 21ème siècle.
Our self-appointed political elites point gloomily to the “uneasy relationship” between Quebec and the rest of Canada, claiming that despite the rejection of separation in two democratic Quebec referendums, Canada must silently accept the Quebec government’s indifference in federal-provincial and even interprovincial forums. It’s true that the Canadian flag is noticeably absent anywhere near Quebec government operations, that the Quebec government opts out of all intergovernmental initiatives from environmental protection to health care, that it maintains a special and untouchable deal on immigration that entitles it to federal funds out of proportion to its immigration flow and refuses to participate in any Canadian energy strategy if Ottawa is involved — all while contentedly collecting the lion’s share of equalization payments. This insular attitude on the part of the provincial government is frustrating and counterproductive.
But the provincial government’s posture does not reflect a disengagement of Quebecers from national politics. On the contrary, what we are seeing is a failure of vigorous national leadership to challenge Quebecers to look beyond the insularity of their provincial politics and actively influence the direction of federal politics. In fact, Quebecers themselves disproved the disengagement thesis when they essentially wiped out the Bloc Québécois in the 2011 federal election and propelled the NDP to official opposition status.
Our national leaders should seize every possible opportunity to speak out against some of the myths that discourage too many Quebecers from full participation in federal politics. For example, the 30th anniversary of the 1982 patriation of the Canadian Constitution was an occasion (largely ignored) to clearly state the case against the myth that Quebec was “excluded” from the Constitution because, not unexpectedly, the separatist premier of the day refused to sign the final document. The Constitution of Canada is the fundamental law of the land everywhere in Canada, including Quebec. Quebecers, like all other Canadians, supported it as a way to erase the final vestiges of our colonial status by ending the British Parliament’s involvement in our constitutional framework. Seventy-two of seventy-five Quebec MPs voted in favour of the 1982 constitutional package, which included the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Among the Charter’s other elements, its expansion of minority language rights entrenched our collective commitment to building an officially bilingual nation. Since 1982 Quebecers have not hesitated to rely on the Constitution and the Charter in the courts and elsewhere.
In fact, contrary to the inaccurate claims of Quebec provincial politicians and promoters of a weak federation, the Canadian Constitution has so rarely been interpreted or applied in a so-called centralist fashion that Canada is now clearly the most decentralized federation in the world. No sub-national governments anywhere raise as much revenue or exercise as much fiscal authority as Canadian provinces. And throughout our history, the federal government has exercised restraint and respected its provincial partners in the federation, from Laurier’s refusal to intervene in the Manitoba Schools Question to Trudeau’s confirmation of extensive provincial jurisdiction over natural resources after the misguided National Energy Program imploded.
It is time for our national parties and especially a renewed Liberal Party to speak out clearly about national purpose, the role of the federal government, and the uses of federal power to benefit all Canadians, not just to broker the interests of various provinces or groups. We must establish the foundation for a more collegial and collaborative federalism and much greater citizen engagement.
A Council of Canadian Governments with open, transparent operations could facilitate the national conversation and intergovernmental compromise needed to pursue clearly defined matters of national interest. Quebecers and all Canadians would be challenged to move beyond the myths, participate more fully in ensuring Canada’s coherence and a dynamic future, and recognize that we are stronger when all of Canada joins in the funding of vast infrastructure needs, the expansion of overseas markets, and the preservation of the environment. We need to articulate the deeper commitments to the idea of Canada shared by all Canadians: to safeguard medicare, to strengthen our parliamentary democracy, and to unite democratic forces against attempts to undermine the national social fabric, such as the Harper government’s law-and-order initiatives.
Indeed, the Quebec government’s eloquent and well-reasoned critique of the Conservative agenda of prison construction and mandatory minimum sentences is very welcome. All who oppose the law-and-order agenda should see Ottawa’s ill-considered program as a reason to work together to change the direction of the national government or replace it at the next general election, not as a justification for a separate Quebec or more insularity. Quebecers’ principled protest against the abolition of the long-gun registry also shows how all Canadians share common interests. Canada is immeasurably stronger and united when Quebecers speak out for Canada on the national scene.