Canadian Commentary: Constitution and Politics

A painful compromise: getting Quebec and the West to agree

September 1997

When Jean Chretien passed legislation giving B.C. and, indirectly, Alberta a veto over future constitutional change, he basically handed Preston Manning his constitutional balls on a platter.

How is this? The majority of the population of the far western provinces are deeply opposed to any kind of constitutional arrangement that is designed for Quebec in particular. Both provinces are legally obliged to hold referendums to accept any constitutional changes, and neither provinces' Premier is going to push any agreement, given the fate of previous Premiers who got caught up in the Quebec problem. The only person who might be able to persuade far westerners to agree to a constitutional agreement for Quebec is the self-anointed voice of western protest himself, Preston Manning (and even then he would need the near-complete support of his party). So, if any proposal to meet Quebec's needs has any hope of actually being ratified, it needs to have Preston Manning's support.

Given this situation, it might be an idea to have a closer look at what Manning's positions are regarding Quebec. Manning has been vilified for exploiting anti-Quebec feelings in his campaigns, and these accusations are entirely justified. On the other hand, all of the other parties have also exploited the Quebec issue for their own advantage (except maybe the NDP, who still look like a deer caught in headlights whenever someone says the word "constitution"), so there's not much point moralizing about the issue.

To get a compromise that is really acceptable to Canadians in all regions, there would have to be an open discussion of options - and a great deal of give and take and compromise. Traditional federalists like myself would have to abandon some of our most cherished ideals - and people in the West and Quebec would also have to give up some of their most cherished resentments. The process would have to work on the Rolling Stones principle - you can't always get what you want, but you get what you need.

The trick will be to find areas in which the West and Quebec - the two most disgruntled parts of Canada - actually share similar points of view. A place to start, strangely enough, would be bilingualism. Manning is hostile to the concept. But his image of bilingualism, as an attempt to make the whole nation work in two languages, is far more imposing than the actual, limited scope of the program. In a way, this is an advantage, as it means that it would be possible to reshape bilingualism into the image he desires. Even Manning must admit that a nation that includes Quebec would have to have two official languages and a federal government which operates in the two languages at its highest levels. What he really seems to object to is the regulatory framework of bilingualism which applies to all areas of Canada, symbolized by those French ingredients on Corn Flakes. His ideal seems to be that Quebec be just French, and everyone else (except presumably New Brunswick) be English. In other words, the provinces decide on their own language policy. In fact, this fits in with some of Quebec politicians' most fundamental demands. They have made it clear they would be happy to leave francophones outside of Quebec in the lurch if it means they can intensify Quebec's own Frenchness. Giving up everything beyond basic functional bilingualism would be painful to those like myself who think it is a nice ideal, but it would be worth it if it would stop the West and Quebec from complaining all the time.

The other area where the opinions of the West and Quebec meet, of course, is the devolution of powers to the provinces. Both agree that the federal government should give more powers to the provinces. In fact, Canada's provinces are already the most powerful sub-national governemnents in the world. The federal government has already abandoned or is in the process of abandoning or devolving a whole raft of powers (tourism, forestry, mines, housing, training). It is hard to know what more the provinces can reasonably want. Perhaps the feds should simply make up new powers and devolve them to the provinces on a regular basis in order to satisfy their ravenous appetite (you now have power over ... hairstyles!). In fact, devolution is one area where Manning may not actually reflect popular opinion. Most Canadians other than provincial politicians seem quite happy with, for instance, the federal watchdog role over medicare. Probably this is true even in Quebec. Furthermore, no-one ever notices or gives credit when actual powers are devolved - witness the fact that the when the feds started handing over training to the provinces, it went basically unnoticed. The demand for devolution is more a symptom of continuing dissatisfaction than it is related to actual analysis of the most appropriate level of government for wielding various powers. If the root causes of dissatisfaction were addressed, the desire for devolution would probably decrease. On the other hand, it is clear that some sort of devolutionary gesture would have to be made by the federal government. One option might be to formalize the devolution that has already happened - provide some mechanism to guarantee that the federal government will no longer try to interfere in training, etc. without the consent of the provinces.

On the other hand, Manning is going to have to give ground on the issue of recognition of Quebec's difference (unique, distinct, special, whatever). You could devolve every power under the sun to the provinces, but Quebec would still want some separate recognition. Fortunately, Manning is starting to make noises that he would accept such recognition, as long as the provinces remain "equal". It is not clear what exactly this equality entails. Provinces are not equal in representation in parliament, obviously. Nor are they equal in the amount they give up or receive in equalization payments, obviously. In addition, many provinces already have special provisions in the constitution. On the other hand, obviously all provinces are equally invited to intergovernmental meetings and have an equal say. To formalize this would be a statement of the obvious, but, if it will make him happy, why not? In the meantime, I look forward to finding out in what other ways the provinces can be made equal. This issue will probably result in every province having a veto over changing any comma in the Constitution. Although ridiculous, this is probably inevitable. Let's just hope the Constitution is in good shape before this is implemented.

In a way, we should be happy that Manning has emerged. However much we may dislike him and disagree with his policies, he represents a point of view that is widely held, which wrecked the previous attempts at a solution, and which must be addressed if any solution is to succeed. A solution that is acceptable to all regions of Canada is probably possible, but it will mean everyone has to give something up, and it will require a long and painful process of negotiation to acheive. The only other process which can finally resolve the Quebec question is a dramatic and divisive national referendum which decides once and for all what path Canada takes.

Sept. 16, 1997

Back to main page

Copyright Dylan Reid

Contents may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the written consent of Dylan Reid