'Quebec has changed': Time is right to reopen constitutional debate, Philippe Couillard says

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says the time is right to reopen the constitutional debate in the hopes of having the province's distinct character officially recognized.

Provincial government unveils new policy in time for Canada's 150th birthday

Premier Philippe Couillard unveiled a policy on Quebec's role in Canada at a news conference Thursday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says the time is right to reopen the constitutional debate in the hopes of having the province's distinct character officially recognized.

In time for Canada's 150th birthday, Couillard announced Thursday a 200-page document outlining his government's vision of Quebec's role within Canada and laying out arguments in support of reopening negotiations. The document has been dubbed "Quebecers: Our Way of Being Canadians."

"We are all Quebecers, and therefore we can all say in French and in English, being Quebecer is our way of being Canadians," said Couillard, who is a staunch federalist and promised to renew the debate when he became leader of the Quebec Liberals in 2013.

"Quebec has changed, Canada has changed and I think we can reopen dialogue," said Couillard, adding that he wants First Nations to have a voice in future discussions.

Quebec was the only province not to sign on to Canada's Constitution in 1982, a rejection that spurred divisive debate about Quebec's role within the country. 

The contentious issue resulted in unsuccessful attempts by former prime minister Brian Mulroney to bring Quebec into the Constitution under the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords.

Developed over two years, the document also states there needs to be more discussion about strengthening the ties between Quebec and Canada, and forging a mutual understanding before launching into constitutional debate.

"There are other elements, other than constitutional ones, that need to be discussed and need to be improved," said Couillard.

While there is no timeline or definite plan for opening constitutional negotiations, Couillard is hopeful the vast coast-to-coast discussion he is launching will eventually lead there.

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée commended Philippe Couillard's willingness to recognize Quebec as a nation. (Canadian Press)

Earlier, Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée commended what he described as the premier's acknowledgement that there is a "problem" when it comes to Quebec's place within Canada.

"The recognition that something is really broken in Canada, that lessens the power of Quebec, the health of Quebec, the ability of Quebec to make its own decisions, is welcome," Lisée said.

Trudeau pans idea

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quickly shot down the possibility of reopening the Constitution.

"You know my views on the Constitution," Trudeau told reporters Thursday morning in Ottawa. "We are not opening the Constitution."

Couillard said he wanted Trudeau to at least read his plan before closing the door on the matter, but Lisée lambasted Trudeau for his response.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard on the province's role within Canada

5 years ago
Duration 0:35
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard on why now is the time to reopen constitutional debate and how the province fits within Canada.

"There were ways for Mr. Trudeau to be decent," said Lisée. "He chose to be flippant, inelegant and to show disregard for the chief of government for the Quebec nation in the worst possible way."

Lisée added that "disrespecting Quebec is a good thing when you want to have votes in the rest of Canada."

Playing politics?

Martine Ouellet, leader of the separatist Bloc Québécois, said she believes Couillard is playing politics, but she said the debate will allow for conversations about Quebec's place in the world.

"The only solution to all the constitutional crises is to take our independence," she said.

The provincial government document states any successful talks must include Canada's official recognition of Quebec nationhood. (Radio-Canada)

Québec Solidaire member of the National Assembly Amir Khadir accused the premier of wanting to move the spotlight away from scandals that have plagued his government for the last few days, including questions about his relationship with disgraced party fundraiser Marc-Yvan Côté.

"No one can reproach Mr. Couillard for wanting to go toward something that, in his point of view, is positive, because … he's gotten himself into a real mess after all the revelations that keep accumulating week after week," he said.

​But why now?

Couillard's document restates the famous "five conditions" for approval first set out by former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa in 1986:

  • Recognition of Quebec as a distinct society.
  • Limits on federal spending power.
  • Guaranteed Quebec representation on the Supreme Court.
  • A constitutional veto right.
  • Increased control over immigration.

However, some of those conditions are already in place, albeit unofficially, explained CBC Daybreak's political analyst Bernard St-Laurent, so it could be argued that it may not be too hard to convince the other provinces to accept the conditions.

The problem, he said, is the feelings that are stirred up once the debate begins.

"The minute you start talking about this, it's like putting federalism on the defensive again, whereas since 1995 it's sovereignty that's been on the defensive," he said.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said it was time to discuss opening the Constitution. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

St-Laurent said Couillard's timing may have to do with shoring up the Liberals' support ahead of the provincial election slated for next year.

He explained that Coalition Avenir Québec, led by a former PQ member of the National Assembly, has pledged not to promote sovereignty and is trying to position itself as an alternative to the Liberals.

"If you're fighting for that nationalist vote in the next election, the non-sovereignist vote, it might be a way of positioning themselves against the CAQ," he said.

With files from The Canadian Press, CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Radio-Canada


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