The Quebec Liberal Leader’s Mistake
A Useful Reminder


By Peter Russell

It didn’t take long for Philippe Couillard, the new leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, to make his first mistake.

And it was a whopper!

In his March 17 victory speech Dr. Couillard announced that he would like to see Quebec return to the Canadian constitutional family in time for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.

For that to happen a new round of constitutional talks would be needed to fix the Constitution in a way that would satisfy Quebec.

Dr. Couillard may be a brilliant neurosurgeon and he certainly was a very capable provincial Health Minister, but a constitutional guru he is not.

The words were hardly out of his mouth when commentators and political leaders of various stripes began rejecting his suggestion.

The federal government wasted no time categorically rejecting Dr. Couillard’s proposal, and on this issue, the opposition parties in Ottawa, for once, appear to agree with the Harper government.

It is important to understand the roots of the resistance to Dr. Couillard’s proposal.

A lot of today’s voters weren’t born when another Quebec Liberal leader made a proposal similar to Dr. Couillard’s, and much of the political leadership in English Canada responded sympathetically.

That leader was Robert Bourassa, and the response took the form of the Meech Lake Accord.

After three years of divisive and distracting constitutional debates, Meech Lake failed to achieve the necessary census.

Following that, a broader, more comprehensive set of constitutional reforms, the Charlottetown Accord, was drafted to deal with the constitutional discontents not just of Quebec, but of all sections of the country.

The Charlottetown Accord was put to the people in the October 1992 referendum.

The Charlottetown Accord was rejected by a 54% majority. Though there were slight majorities for it in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, there were even larger majorities against it in Quebec and the West.

Exit polls in 1992 showed that Quebecers and westerners voted against the Charlottetown Accord for exactly opposite reasons: for Quebecers there was not enough special status for their province, and  for westerners there was much too much for Quebec.

There is no reason to believe that a return to the constitutional table today to satisfy Quebec would not open up the same fissure in the Canadian body politic.

If these constitutional efforts taught Canadians anything, it was that trying to shore up national unity by means of constitutional reform is a mug’s game. 

After the back-to-back experiences of Meech Lake and Charlottetown, the country was not less, but more divided.

Just how badly these efforts served the cause of national unity became abundantly clear in 1995 when Quebec held its second sovereignty referendum.

This time the “yes” side came within a decimal point of victory, whereas fifteen years earlier the sovereignists lost by 20% to the “no” side. 

Since then, Canada’s political leaders have had the good sense to avoid mega constitutional politics.

That does not mean that we Canadians  must live in a constitutional “deep freeze”.

We have used our patriated constitutional amending formula to make constitutional adjustments for individual provinces and to clarify aboriginal rights.

Electoral and parliamentary reform are urgently needed but do not require amendments of our formal, written Constitution.

Though the patriated Constitution may still lack full political legitimacy in Quebec, that fact is not a source of any serious political instability. As Quebec governments and people learn to use the constitutional powers and political leverage they have in the federation, the legitimacy of the constitutional status quo will grow.

A case in point is the unanimous motion adopted by Quebec’s National Assembly on March 13 calling on renewal of the province’s labour training agreement with Ottawa.

The federal government’s threat in last week’s budget to insert itself back into the job training field will be a good test of Quebec’s capacity to maintain its own distinctive approach to this aspect of the welfare state.

Though Philippe Couillard’s opening day proposal to renew the big constitutional reform game was ill-conceived, we should thank him for reminding us of what we have learned from our sweaty and frustrating constitutional travails of the past, and get on with making the most of the Constitution we have.

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : March 25, 2013

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