For years, Quebec’s role within—or outside—the Canadian Constitution has been a recurring topic of political debate in the province. In fact, so many academics and politicians have been embroiled in the controversy that Jean-Claude Rivest, a senior adviser to Premier Robert Bourassa, recently quipped that Quebec’s constitutional position “should never be settled—because it constitutes one of our biggest job-creation programs.” But both Bourassa and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney have repeatedly voiced hopes of breaking the deadlock that has existed since 1981, when René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois (PQ) government said that the constitutional accord endorsed by the other nine provinces provided inadequate powers for Quebec and refused to sign. That incomplete accord led to the proclamation the next year of a new constitution with a Charter of Rights and an amending formula.
Now, five months after the election of Bourassa’s Liberal government, Ottawa and Quebec City have quietly begun preparing for a new round of formal negotiations which might begin as early as next fall. Last week Gil Rémillard, the province’s intergovernmental affairs minister and a former constitutional adviser to the Mulroney
government, told a meeting of constitutional experts at Mont Gabriel, Que., that the province is eager to reopen constitutional talks with Ottawa. However, he cautioned, “the ball is not only in Quebec’s court, but also in that of the federation which isolated one of the main partners that created it in 1867.” Rémillard’s address, which Bourassa advisers described as his government’s most important constitutional declaration since the election, also amounted to the most detailed list yet of the province’s demands.
Several key Liberal proposals mirror those in the constitutional program presented by the PQ almost exactly a year ago. Quebec will insist that the constitution specifically recognize the province’s distinct French-speaking character—a measure which Rémillard described as “a prerequisite to any talks.” As well, the province is asking for increased powers over immigration policy, formal right of approval of three of the nine Supreme Court judges and a limitation on federal spending powers. Rivest told Maclean’s: “Many of our demands are the sort of things that already exist in fact but not necessarily in writing. We want them in writing.”
Still, Bourassa raised eyebrows
across the country last week when he said that he would want constitutional recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”—a phrase he would interpret as giving the province priority control over language and cultural matters. Said the premier: “It is logical that this interpretation would confer upon Quebec particular powers.” But Bourassa also said that he would not expect Quebec to be exempted from all federal control in such matters as language of the courts and minority education rights.
Another crucial bargaining point is the Liberal position on an amending formula governing future constitutional changes. Although Rémillard did not concede the point, other Liberals acknowledge they now hope to push the federal government and other provinces to accept the so-called Victoria amending formula established at a constitutional conference in British Columbia in 1971. Under that formula, the support of two Atlantic provinces, two Western provinces, Quebec and Ontario would be needed to approve certain constitutional changes. During his earlier term as premier, Bourassa had endorsed the Victoria formula but was forced to reject it as part of the larger—and unacceptable-constitutional package.
While waiting for Quebec to propose a formal resumption of talks, federal officials have said little. Said a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office: “It is up to them to come to us, not vice versa.” Although Mulroney has repeatedly indicated his wish to have his native province sign a constitutional agreement “with honor and enthusiasm,” some Tories warn that new talks with Quebec could prompt the other provinces to make new demands. Said Justice Minister John Crosbie: “We have to get a considerable number of the provinces to agree to anything we agree to with Quebec. That will not be easy because some of them will want a quid pro quo, which is best to avoid if we can.” Still, many officials contend that for any agreement to be concluded, full-scale talks must begin before the spring of 1987, when the federal Conservatives will be preparing for an expected 1988 election. Accordingly, Quebec is now planning informal meetings with representatives of the other provinces over the summer months. If those meetings go well, the province could ask Ottawa to reopen talks in the fall. Said Rivest: “We do not expect anyone to bow and scrape before us. But until there is an agreement, the federation is not complete—and neither we nor anyone else can be happy about that.”
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