Don't mention the Constitution: Why Quebec can't help itself

In the slapstick comedy of Canadian politics, Quebec is seen as the Basil Fawlty character, dimly aware of a social convention that demands ‘don’t mention the Constitution.’

Shoring up minority identities may not be a bad thing amid populist surge

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard unveiled a policy on Quebec affirmation and Canadian relations last week. The response was tepid. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

In the slapstick comedy of Canadian politics, Quebec is seen as the Basil Fawlty character, dimly aware of a social convention that demands "don't mention the Constitution."

But, alas, badly concussed from earlier hijinks, Quebec can no longer repress its inner urges, and keeps blurting out the very thing nobody wants to talk about.

As it silly-walks about the great Canadian hotel, helplessly talking about the Constitution, Quebec leaves the guests crying and arguing about who started it all in the first place.

It's that Fawlty Towers-esque scene that comes to mind when reading the bemused reaction in the rest of Canada to Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard's proposal that we talk constitution again.

The almost rote response from political commentators was to invoke their misspent youth covering Meech Lake and Charlottetown, then draw battle-weary maxims about a "can of worms" or a "Pandora's box" not worth opening again

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard with Jean-Marc Fournier, Quebec's minister responsible for Canadian relations. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

​In Quebec's Francophone press, the response was a few degrees warmer, though still chilly. Couillard's proposal was taken mainly as an electoral ploy, a chance to further marginalize the Parti Québécois and head off a resurgent Coalition Avenir Québec.

There is merit, no doubt, to both views.

History suggests that if the goal is having Quebec sign the Constitution prospects are slim, and the potential consequences severe.

It is unlikely, too, that Couillard would float such a weighty proposal if he didn't think it would help his party down the line.

There is, however, another way of understanding Couillard's gambit, one less cynical and more attuned to the anxieties of this particular global moment.

Finding a home for internal exiles

It bears recalling that what the Couillard government is actually calling for, in the near-term, is not constitutional talks per se, but talk about the Constitution.

The more immediate desire is a friendly environment, for those Quebecers so inclined, to be able to discuss Quebec's role within the federation. 

This hasn't always been easy, given that Quebec's motives are routinely second-guessed. Just look at how often the province is accused of being an equalization leech by certain premiers.

At several points in the treatise he released last week, Couillard cites Guy Laforest's notion of being an exile within one's own country.

It is arguably the fear of being excluded from the rest of Canada that Quebec federalists fear most, even more so than separatism itself.

So simply the prospect of a civil dialogue about Quebec identity and aspirations would be a victory of sorts for Quebec Liberals.

The Queen signs Canada's constitutional proclamation in Ottawa on April 17, 1982 as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looks on. (Ron Poling/Canadian Press)

But to overcome that sense of internal exile, Couillard ultimately wants a type of recognition that runs against the grain of the Constitution as it is currently written.

When it was drafted, Pierre Trudeau emphasized individual rights and equality. He would later equate the recognition of group rights with "dictatorship" and a recipe for "civil war."

And yet that is precisely the type of right that Couillard wants to see inserted by having Quebec's nationhood enshrined in the Constitution: a collective right that grants the province special status.

One populist leader away

That special status has obviously been a sticking point for Canadians in the past. But the geo-political climate has shifted significantly since the last round of constitutional haggling.

For one, there is a greater willingness among Canadian politicians to see the country as composed of multiple nations.

Not only did Parliament pass in 2006 a motion recognizing the Quebecois as a nation, but the current Liberal government has indicated its willingness to have "nation-to-nation" dialogue with Indigenous groups.

Liberal democracy, moreover, is under siege throughout the Western world. And among the darkest threats it faces is from far-right populist movements advocating univocal nationalisms.

Quebec has reason to be sensitive to these rumblings from abroad; identity politics has a currency here yet unmatched in the rest of Canada.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (left to right), Finance Minister Allan MacEachen, and Quebec Premier Rene Levesque attend the constitutional conference in Ottawa, Nov.5, 1981. (The Canadian Press)

Couillard's effort to have Quebec's group identity recognized within the Constitution could help stabilize it against populist manipulations.

Its collective identity would be enshrined within a schedule of individual rights, adding legitimacy to constraints on how that identity is expressed. 

Not talking about the Constitution, on the other hand, would seem only to reinforce the Constitution's fragility; its limits go untested, its potential unexplored. 

If recent politics has taught us one thing, we're all just one populist leader away from having the shortcomings of our governing institutions exposed. 

Could it be safer to discuss ways of anchoring the foundations of the identities that make up the country before they fall victim to illiberal politics?

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.


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