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           Ontario And Quebec’s Latest Constitution Mongering 


By Randall White

We have “big challenges” in Canada today, Prime Minister Trudeau recently declared — “that Canadians are more than capable of dealing with and even leading the world on.”

But “that doesn’t happen when we get bogged down in the wording of the Constitution” he said.

The federal prime minister was responding to a 190-page document just released by Premier Philippe Couillard, called (in English) Quebecers  —  Our Way of Being Canadian: Policy on Québec Affirmation and Canadian Relations

Justin Trudeau and others have taken this document as a plea to “re-open” formal negotiations on Canada’s complex and controversial constitution, in the spirit of the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  

The prime minister has wisely made clear that Ottawa has no interest in getting bogged down in any official exercise of this sort right now. Yet this may not exactly be the best policy for the government of Canada’s most populous province at Queen’s Park. 

Jonathan Montpetit at CBC News in Montreal has stressed, “What the Couillard government is actually calling for, in the near-term, is not constitutional talks per se, but talk about the Constitution.” 

In an article on the iPolitics website another Montrealer, Martin Patriquin, aptly summarized the narrow negative case: “constitutional reform has been seen as a politically fraught exercise best punted into the horizon. Le fruit n’est pas mûr, as they say in these parts. The fruit isn’t ripe.”

Premier Couillard’s crucial point, however, is that without more informal “talk about the Constitution” the fruit never will ripen. 

And the longer-term future of the Canadian confederation, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, may finally depend on several kinds of ripened constitutional fruit in the 21st century. 

For the moment Jonathan Montpetit summarizes what Premier Couillard wants as “a friendly environment, for those Quebecers so inclined, to be able to discuss Quebec's role within the federation.”  

Quebec’s Our Way of Being Canadian document also discusses Aboriginal peoples. It recognizes that Quebec's role is not the only issue on which ripened constitutional fruit is important for the long-term future.

Yet another issue is the still unreformed Senate of Canada. 

According to an Angus Reid poll just this past April, Canadians appreciate the Trudeau government’s minimalist efforts to de-politicize Senate appointments. But, the poll says, "most believe additional Senate reform is necessary.”

And: more than two-in-three believe further reforming or abolishing the Senate is a serious enough issue to merit re-opening debate on Canada's constitution. 

Meanwhile, late this past December, an Ipsos poll for Global News reported that a majority of Canadians say ties to the monarchy should be cut when Queen Elizabeth passes on.

This is another constitutional issue where the fruit is still quite green. Advocates of all persuasions might even agree that it needs more public discussion and debate. 

And there are still further potential constitutional issues that could be up for discussion. 

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has suggested that if Quebec is going to start talking about its distinct constitutional needs again, at least one other province will start talking about changes to section 36 of the Constitution Act, 1982 - on equalization and regional disparities.

In addition, some believe Canada’s 21st century constitution ought to say something about protecting the environment.

At this point those who wisely warn against re-opening the constitution can reasonably complain about it being a Pandora’s box. 

That argument holds that we should just ignore the sometimes-conflicting constitutional interests of various Canadian people for at least the foreseeable future. And Prime Minister Trudeau certainly seems right to take this position in Ottawa. 

Yet others believe that in an increasingly risky global village, we in Canada today need to start talking about various parts of our constitutional future that need strengthening — starting with Quebec’s role in confederation. Only by talking about the issues as widely as possible can we finally reach any consensus on what will work, somewhat further down the road, they say.

In the spirit of William Davis’s Ontario leadership on the Constitution Act, 1982, it is also arguable that the government of Ontario today should respond in some positive way to the Couillard government’s Our Way of Being Canadian

Maybe the Council of the Federation (or provincial and territorial premiers), as just one example, could sponsor a study with public hearings on Canadian constitutional change.  

One former Ontario premier has already responded to Premier Couillard’s appeal.

“I disagree a little bit with what Mr. Trudeau said the other day, saying this topic is closed. Constitutions are never closed,” Bob Rae said.

“The Constitution is a living thing" he went on.  "It's a living document. It's not some dead piece of paper. The Constitution is about how we live together as Canadians. And that's a conversation none of us wants to shut down.” 















About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : June 12, 2017

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