Friday, June 9, 2017

Surprise!....Quebec Wants Back Into Canadian Constitution

A lot of Ottawa pundits have thrown cold water on the idea put forward by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard on re-opening constitutional talks with an eye to finally getting Quebec to sign on. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has indicated that he's in no mood to reopen the painful and acrimonious debate. So stressful and traumatic was the last constitutional round of negotiations in 1982, that the bitter taste hasn't dissipated for those who participated. For those of us common citizens who were around and observed, it was like watching someone getting a tooth pulled.
But however painful, having Quebec remain out of the constitution is a powerful reminder that Canada remains an unfinished symphony, an incomplete country with a constitution that was never agreed upon by one of the founding partners.

For lack of a better analogy it reminds of the Israel/Palestinian dynamic where an imperfect and unfair status quo has become permanent and where there is no movement towards accommodation because one side is decidedly favoured by leaving things alone and the other too stubborn and prideful to engage.
Now I know I'll catch flack for the above, but all I'm trying to say is that there isn't much interest in English Canada in re-opening talks because quite frankly, English Canada and the other provinces see (quite rightly) that there is nothing is to be gained for its side.
But it doesn't make it right and who less than the Prime Minister should know better. Painful as re-negotiation will be, it is a necessary step in making Canada whole.

But the question remains, why on Earth would Premier Couillard embark on what would be on first glance a foolhardy endeavour, fraught with danger and conflict with little chance of success.

Actually, for Couillard any new negotiation remains a win/win, believe it or not.
Success, no matter how unlikely would be the crowning achievement of his Premiership and assure his re-election.
Counter-intuitively, even in failure Couillard and the Liberals would find success, as separatist sentiment would certainly be re-kindled and the old debate of federalism versus independence returning to become the prime election issue, something to the Liberal party advantage.
While the PQ's support would rise, it would come at the expense of the CAQ, marginalized by the debate, being neither here nor there. The Liberals would still muster enough federalist votes to be re-elected.
For the Liberals, moving the debate away from the corruption issue is of paramount importance, because it is over this issue that it remains vulnerable to the CAQ who would, even in a minority situation jump at a chance to partner up with the PQ in forming a government.
A new constitutional accord or a failed constitutional debate both play into this Liberal party playbook meant to steer the debate away from corruption, any way it can.

At any rate, what is it that Quebec wants that Canada is reluctant to give?
Asymmetrical federalism  is what can best be described as different strokes for different folks, that is that Quebec would enjoy certain powers that other provinces do not.

On the face of it, asymmetry sounds rather terrible and unfair, but to Quebec, it is considered the essential component to the preservation of it's place as a vibrant and self-sustaining French entity in Canada.

Our current legislation guarantees Quebec 3 of the 9 judges on the Supreme Court of Canada, a clear over-reach considering Quebec has but 23% of the Canadian population, meaning that based on population, Quebec would be entitled to just 2 judges.
This asymmetrical accommodation to Quebec irks many Canadians to no end and is referred to endlessly as an unfair advantage.
But strangely nobody seems to complain that Prince Edward Island enjoys one of the most egregious displays of asymmetrical accommodation in the division of Parliamentary seats where the tiny island is allotted four members in the House of Commons, grossly exaggerating and multiplying the province's political influence. With a population of just 145,000 people, each PEI member of parliament represents but 35,000 people, while the Canadian average is one member of Parliament for every 103,000. By all rights PEI should be allotted no more than 2 members of Parliament and even this is generous.
The same goes for Canada's three territories which each get one member while the straight math indicates that they deserve one member for the three combined.
These are asymmetrical accommodations that most of us would argue is fair, so let us not get on a high horse and pretend that asymmetrical accommodations towards Quebec are inherently unfair.

I'm reminded of the anecdote which has taken many forms, but this one seems to be one of the more popular;
“They are telling this of Lord Beaverbrook and a visiting Yankee actress. In a game of hypothetical questions, Beaverbrook asked the lady: ‘Would you live (sleep) with a stranger if he paid you one million pounds?’ 
She said she would. 
‘And if he paid you five pounds?’ 
The irate lady fumed: ‘Five pounds. What do you think I am?’ 
Beaverbrook replied: ‘We’ve already established that. Now we are trying to determine the degree.”
So Canadians are not against accommodations or asymmetric federalism, it is just the degree that Quebec benefits that remains the question.
Quebec seeks the right to opt out of federal programs with compensation, the right to control immigration and language in its province and other benefits that quite frankly make little difference to Canadians living their daily lives.
There is certainly a deal to be done, one that will in fact change little, but one would that mean a lot to Quebecers seeking their rightful place in Canada.
I would in fact support practically any deal and accommodations as long as it eliminates the infamous and egregious 'notwithstanding clause' which allows provinces to opt out of portions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by a simple vote in provincial Parliament, thus rendering our Supreme Court not so supreme.

Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of the Constitution of Canada. It is commonly known as the notwithstanding clause (or la clause dérogatoire in French), or as the override power, and it allows Parliament or provincial legislatures to override certain portions of the Charter. It was, and continues to be, perhaps the most controversial provision of the Charter. Wikipedia
And so gentle reader, before holding your nose and screaming constitutional change 'over my dead body,' one should consider that it is really not that big a deal.
Not that big deal at all.


  1. Section 33, the notwithstanding clause, along with section 26 are the only good things in the Charter.

  2. Hmmmm. Re-open constitutional talks or draw a nice warm bath and slit our wrists. I know which option will be more painful.

  3. Assymetry is always viewed as what makes Quebec unique vis a vis its francophone majority and since we're talking about the constitution, I would remind readers that any discussion should factor in the assymetry as it appĺies to its anglo minority. For example, section 133 guarantees the right to use English and French in the courts and legislatures of both the federal government and the Quebec provincial legislature. That makes Quebec assymetrical when compared to other provinces, N.B. excepted as of 1982.

    But whereas this right has expanded on the federal level to the Nth degree, it has contracted to the bare minimum on the Quebec level, as far as the legislature is concerned.

    The reality is that Quebec was meant to be as officially bilingual as Ottawa was. THAT should be included in any constitutional discussion of assymetry as well.