'We are not opening the Constitution': Trudeau pans Quebec's plans

As Premier Philippe Couillard kicks off a renewed discussion about Quebec signing on to the 1982 Constitution, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants no part of it.

'You know my views,' Liberal PM says as Quebec prepares to launch national discussion

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen here on the final day of his trip to Europe this week, told reporters in Ottawa Thursday that he's not on board with plans by the Quebec government to reopen discussions on bringing the province into the 1982 Constitution. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

As Premier Philippe Couillard kicks off a renewed discussion about Quebec signing on to the 1982 Constitution, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants no part of it.

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

Couillard released a 177-page document outlining his government's vision of Quebec's role within Canada and laying out arguments in support of reopening negotiations.

It repeats the "five conditions" set out by former premier Robert Bourassa that drove negotiations for the Meech Lake accord 30 years ago, including Constitutional recognition for the Quebec nation.

After Trudeau's cabinet met Thursday morning, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said the federal government has a productive relationship with Quebec.

"The priorities that have been expressed by Quebecers and, may I say, by all Canadians, is that we should focus on the economy and on the creation of jobs," he said. "That's a full-time job."

'Not the right timing'

"It has to be settled one day or the other," said Liberal MP Denis Paradis, but "if some people don't want to talk about it right now, it's not the right timing."

"I don't think there's much appetite among Canadians regarding this," said his caucus colleague Pablo Rodriguez.

The fact that Quebec never signed is not a small detail. It has to be corrected eventually.- NDP leadership candidate Guy Caron

"I think most people in federal politics would rather that we not reopen the Constitution, but it's not really our decision to make, is it?" said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

She said other issues can't be resolved — Senate reform and environmental rights among them — without wading in.

"If you're looking at a time to have that conversation, it's certainly better to have it at a time when we're not in a crisis," she said.

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

That would include Canada's "terribly flawed" and "outdated" equalization payments system, he said, which "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."

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne was asked about constitutional talks being a slippery slope, with every province wanting to add something else.

"Well, we're not going to do that, so it's very simple," he said.

'Radical federalist'

"I think that Philippe Couillard is showing himself to be a bridge builder, and Justin Trudeau is slamming the door on that for his own partisan, petty political gain rather than looking at the long game for the country," said NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. 

"Using Quebec as a whipping boy is a very old strategy, and Trudeau son is trying to emulate Trudeau père [father], and frankly it's unbecoming a prime minister of Canada whose No. 1 job is keeping the country together," he said.

Conservative Jacques Gourde said in French that this debate takes political courage.

MPs divided over reopening Constitution

5 years ago
Duration 1:44
MPs muse about the proposal by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard to reopen the Constitution.

"The fact that Quebec never signed is not a small detail. It has to be corrected eventually," said New Democrat Guy Caron, praising Couillard's approach as constructive.

Bloc Québécois MP Xavier Barasalou-Duval said Trudeau is a "radical federalist."

"He doesn't want to speak, doesn't want to talk, doesn't want to hear. So it's not the way that you should drive a country," he said. "We see that there's no opportunity in Canada."

Divisive history

Quebec was the only province not to sign on to Canada's Constitution in 1982 after a passionate and divisive debate.

The province's status within Canada became one of the most contentious issues in Canadian politics over the next two decades, with two failed attempts by the subsequent Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney — the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords — to bring Quebec into the Constitution under new terms.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard (right) and his house leader Jean-Marc Fournier previewed the Liberal government's discussion paper about Quebec signing on to the 1982 Constitution for The Canadian Press on Wednesday. Couillard wants Trudeau to read the plan before closing the door on the idea. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Liberal prime minister who came next, Jean Chrétien, was at the helm when the 1995 Quebec referendum vote nearly returned a majority in favour of pursuing independence. His government brought then constitutional expert Stéphane Dion into cabinet to lead the federal response, ultimately resulting in the Clarity Act, which sets out the terms for any future sovereignty referendum.

Dion is now Canada's ambassador to Germany and Trudeau's special envoy to the European Union.

During former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper's tenure, the House of Commons passed a controversial motion recognizing the Québécois as a nation. 

The constitutional front has been largely quiet since then, with federal and provincial sovereigntist parties finding lower levels of support and governments at both levels focusing on other issues in the federal-provincial relationship.

Meech Lake revisited?

When Couillard became leader of the Quebec Liberals in 2013, the strong federalist said he was in favour of reopening the discussion to help the province "reintegrate into the Canadian family."

But what's changed since the last round of constitutional wrangling to suggest a new "dialogue" will succeed?

"To be frank, I don't know," said former politician turned law professor Benoît  Pelletier, suggesting that so far this looks like a second try for the Meech Lake accord. "I thought that he would come up with something different."

Couillard likely wants a mandate in the next provincial election to proceed, Jean Charest's former intergovernmental affairs minister said.

Aboriginal groups, who also want the Constitution reopened to address their concerns, may be Quebec's allies in the discussion, he suggested.

"The word 'Constitution' is back in the public debate," he said.

Quebec wants to reopen constitutional talks

5 years ago
Duration 8:32
Jean-Marc Fournier, Quebec’s Minister responsible for Canadian Relations, sits down with Rosemary Barton to discuss Premier Philippe Couillard’s 177-page document outlining his government's vision of Quebec's role within Canada

With files from Julie Van Dusen


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