Deflecting Scandal with Identity Politics: Why Couillard is Reopening the Constitutional Debate in Canada

On June 1st, 2017, Premier Philippe Couillard announced that the time has come to reopen the constitutional debate in Quebec. The response across much of Quebec and Canada was: WHY?

As it turns out, the announcement is merely a confirmation of a promise Couillard made in 2013 when running for leadership of the province. Back then he boldly said he planned to get Quebec to sign the constitution by Canada’s 150th anniversary. As it stands, Quebec has never signed the Canadian constitution. In order to understand why, we need to go back in time.

(The story is a long one, so apologies to any history buffs who feel that vital information is missing.)

Before 1982, Canada’s constitution remained in London and only the British government could amend it. However, the act of getting permission from Great Britain became a purely symbolic act as Canada and other former British colonies asserted their independence. All Canada had to do was ask the British to amend their constitution and the crown would rubber stamp their request. Nonetheless, in the late 1970s and early 80s, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, father of our current prime minister, came up with a plan to bring Canada’s constitution home.

Trudeau’s plan consisted of repatriating the constitution, modifying it by entrenching his charter of rights, what we now know as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and establishing an amendment formula. In order to do so, he got provincial leaders together, one of whom was the father of the Quebec Sovereigntist movement, René Lévesque.

The goal was to get the provinces to agree to Trudeau’s plan. At the same time, the Prime Minister put the question of what was allowed to the Supreme Court in a case we now know as the Patriation Reference.

The Supreme Court had to answer many questions, but the main one was whether Ottawa was bound by law to get the consent of the provinces to amend the constitution. The Court said no.

Quebec wanted recognition of itself as a distinct society, a veto over constitutional amendments, as well as an opt out clause that would allow provinces an out of certain aspects of the constitution with some kind of compensation so they would not have to pay for any federal actions that were not in their interests. Lévesque and Quebec were denied, and the constitution was repatriated and entrenched without Quebec’s consent.

Two more attempts were made to get Quebec to sign the constitution, but both failed. As it has never consented to the current constitution, Quebec remains bound by it only because it remains part of Canada.

With Couillard’s announcement came the release of a two hundred page document outlining his government’s vision for Quebec and its place in Canada. The document cannot be called a plan because it sets no timeline for Quebec to sign and no step by step procedure his government would want to use.

The document has a lot of words, but says nothing of value.

It asserts the Quebecois identity as “our way of being Canadian” but when it comes to identifying the people of Quebec, the text limits them to four groups: French speakers, English speakers and the First Nations and Inuit. Allophones such as the Jews, the Greeks, the Italians, Eastern Europeans and the Asian communities who helped to build Quebec are almost completely left out.

The only time Allophones are mentioned in the text is in the context of “interculturalism” and “integration” which, when put together, sound dangerously like assimilation. Since Quebec policy treats Allophones as potential Francophones by making their children go to French school, this is hardly surprising. The text also fails to address the growing problem of Xenophobia in Quebec, which begs the question as to whether the document’s definition of the English Speaking Quebecois refers exclusively to white English-speakers in the province.

What Couillard’s document does do is reiterate what Quebec wants from a relationship with Canada as party to the constitution:

  • Recognition of the Quebec Nation
  • Respect for Quebec’s areas of jurisdiction
  • Autonomy
  • Flexibility and asymmetry
  • Cooperation and administrative agreements
  • Shared institutions

This is all sealed together with the assertion that Quebec’s “full and complete participation in Canada” must come from a “concrete and meaningful recognition” of the province as “the only predominantly French-speaking state in North America and as such, heir to a rich and unique culture that must be protected, supported, and developed.”

Couillard’s plan to reopen the constitutional debate has been met with mixed feelings.

Bloc Québecois leader Martine Ouellet acknowledges that it’s a political move but welcomes it as an opportunity to reopen discussions about Quebec sovereignty. Though the Parti Québecois has decided to put aside the issue of sovereignty for the time being, leader Jean-François Lisée commended Couillard for acknowledging the need to address Quebec’s place within Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has more or less said it’s not a topic to be reopened, while Amir Khadir, an MNA for Québec Solidaire, claims it’s a ploy by the Couillard government to deflect attention from the scandals surrounding the Premier and his party.

It is Khadir’s interpretation of Couillard’s move that seems the most plausible. A simple Google search of Couillard’s name with the word “scandal” will reveal much about the shortcomings of his government. There is everything from the arrest of deputy-premier Nathalie Normandeau for corruption, to Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette’s mismanagement of our health care system and Barrette’s defensive victim-blaming, to the police surveillance scandal, to the Bombardier executive bonus scandal available to learn about online. With his government up for reelection next year, there is much Couillard needs to deflect attention from.

Let’s not take the bait, and keep our eyes where they belong: not on a can of worms that should not be opened, but on the government holding the can opener.

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