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Quebec is right to reopen a constitutional discussion

Konrad Yakabuski

Brave or delusional is the federalist politician who dares to awaken the sleeping dog of constitutional reform. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard is a brave man taking a calculated risk. But he is not deluded enough to believe there are enough other federalists in the rest of Canada brave enough to join him.

The rest of Canada is still in denial. It thinks the 1982 adoption of a new Constitution without Quebec’s consent is an accident of history that needs no correcting. That Quebec’s decades-old demands for constitutional recognition of its distinct character can go unaddressed indefinitely. That the main reason for even entertaining Quebec’s demands in the first place – the threat of separation – is now such a distant prospect that they can be ignored without consequence.

Many Canadians who lived through our previous dramas, from the separatist Parti Québécois’ first electoral victory in 1976 to our post-1995-referendum crises, simply refuse to invest any more energy in trying to resolve our constitutional differences. But they are mistaken if they think we can move ahead as a country without doing so. Reconciliation with Quebec is no less critical to Canada’s success in the 21st century than reconciliation with First Nations and Inuit peoples. If we’re to at all become the model for the world we pretend to be, we must achieve both.

What sovereign country can long endure if it is too paralyzed by fear to even discuss its basic premise? We would never have made it to the 150-year mark as a country had earlier generations of Canadians not recognized that diversity is our strength and that, without Quebec, there is no Canada. Even before Confederation, our leaders understood this by adopting the Quebec Act of 1774. Every step of the way thereafter, we knew to accommodate our differences.

The exception came with former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s patriation of the Constitution in 1982. This is all the more astonishing considering that Mr. Trudeau himself had often used the term “distinct society” to refer to Quebec. “I see Quebec coming out of its referendum to continue building within Canada its own secure and distinct society, the equal of any in the world,” he said in 1979, a year before Quebeckers voted in their first sovereignty plebiscite.

Brian Mulroney sought to complete Mr. Trudeau’s unfinished business – he had promised Quebeckers constitutional reform in exchange for voting No in 1980 – knowing full well that a failure to do so would sooner or later cost us a country. The result was the 1987 Meech Lake Accord, which would have amended the Constitution to insert a distinct-society clause recognizing the Quebec National Assembly’s unique responsibilities for protecting the province’s language, culture and civil law. Meech enjoyed huge public support inside and outside Quebec until Mr. Trudeau denounced the accord, warning it would “render the Canadian state totally impotent.”

Meech never really had a chance after that. Opponents asserted that Quebec could use the distinct-society clause to trample on the rights of minorities and that Meech violated the principle of provincial equality. Both assertions were unfounded. As former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Brian Dickson said in a 1996 speech: “The courts are already interpreting the Charter of Rights and the Constitution in a manner that takes into account Quebec’s distinctive role in protecting and promoting its francophone character. As a practical matter, therefore, entrenching formal recognition of Quebec’s distinctive character in the Constitution would not involve a significant departure from the existing practice in our courts.”

Mr. Trudeau went to his grave without publicly ceding an inch. But in his memoirs, former prime minister Jean Chrétien recounts that Mr. Trudeau endorsed his 1995 referendum-eve pledge to recognize Quebec as a distinct society. “When I phoned to warn Pierre Trudeau about what I intended to say, I found him as nervous as every other federalist about the polls,” Mr. Chrétien wrote. Mr. Trudeau, he added, told him: “You’re in charge. Do what you think you have to.”

Imagine how much more prosperous Quebec, and hence all of Canada, would be today if Meech had gone through. Imagine how much acrimony, resentment and hurt we could have collectively avoided if enough of our leaders had been big and brave enough to put aside their personal and political rivalries for the good of the country. Imagine what it would feel like not to live in paralyzing fear of the word “constitution.” Imagine what else we could achieve as a country.

Mr. Couillard has done us all a favour by reminding us it’s still not too late to fix this.