The high stakes of Philippe Couillard's constitutional project

Within hours of Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard unveiling his plan to reopen the constitutional debate, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall announced he'd have his own demands. That's the first clue of what's at stake now that the "can of worms" has been opened.

'It opens up a can of worms.... Everyone comes to the table with a different demand': analyst

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, left, accompanied by Quebec government house leader Jean-Marc Fournier, unveiled his plan to reopen the constitutional debate in Quebec City Thursday. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Only hours after Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard kicked off discussions about having his province sign on to the 1982 Constitution, at least one of Couillard's provincial counterparts made it clear he would have his own demands should talks reopen.

"If Quebec is interested in reopening the discussion about Quebec's place in Canada and the Constitution, there are certainly other constitutional issues we would like to discuss," Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who has taken jabs at Quebec in the past, said in a statement.

"At the top of the list would be equalization, which is a terribly flawed system that takes over $500 million a year out of Saskatchewan even while our economy is being hit by low resource prices, while providing over $11 billion a year to Quebec."

No easy debate

Wall's swift response was a clue, if one was required, that reopening the long-dormant constitutional debate won't be easy.

Bernard St-Laurent, CBC Montreal's political analyst, said reopening the constitutional debate will have everyone wanting a piece of the pie.

CBC Montreal political analyst Bernard St-Laurent says that if the constitutional debate fails again, it will be more ammunition for Quebec's sovereignty movement. (CBC)

"It opens up a can of worms every time you try to deal with it because everyone comes to the table with a different demand," he said.

But Couillard, a staunch federalist who committed to reopening the constitution when he became leader of the Quebec Liberal Party in 2013, is adamant that Canada's 150th birthday is the right time to have a discussion.

"We're just saying let's understand each other better, because we've drifted apart in recent years," he said.

​Bourassa's 5 conditions

For the last two years, Couillard has been drafting the 177-page document released today.

In it, he 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.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for his part, was quick to shoot down the idea.

"You know my views on the Constitution," Trudeau told reporters Thursday morning in Ottawa.

"We are not opening the Constitution."

​St-Laurent said Couillard's move to bring this discussion back into the spotlight is at his own risk.

"The chances of success, as we have already seen, are low, and the risks are that if it fails again, it will be more ammunition for the sovereignty movement at a time when they are not doing very well."

"So it's a big risk at a time when it's not necessary to take that risk."

Couillard is now in the crosshairs of the Parti Québécois, a year before the next provincial election.

"If in a year-and-a-half there is no progress, no majority of anglo-Canadians that agree with recognizing the Quebec nation in the Constitution, we have to see that as a failure," said PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée.

"We don't think it'll work, but he put on his shoulders the burden of proof."