BUSINESS WATCH

The inevitability of sovereignty-association

Neither a federalist nor a separatist, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa is in politics to increase the power of his home province

Peter C. Newman August 20 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

The inevitability of sovereignty-association

Neither a federalist nor a separatist, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa is in politics to increase the power of his home province

Peter C. Newman August 20 1990

The inevitability of sovereignty-association

PETER C. NEWMAN

BUSINESS WATCH

French-English relations in this country have always hovered on the edge of crisis, but Canadians could smugly assume that our politicians, if not much good for anything else, could at least talk us into the 21st century. That’s no longer true, and whether we like it or not the balance of this decade will be spent negotiating a new arrangement between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

This will ultimately require a new Constitution, but if the Meech Lake fiasco taught us anything, it was that constitutions should express the binding force of existing consensus, instead of being used as weapons to coerce people into changing their attitudes. In the forthcoming exercise of consensus-building, we are, as a nation, trapped between militant demands and moderate possibilities. Yet there is no way around it. Politicians can continue waving fancy constitutional proposals—like some leper’s bell—but nothing will happen until English Canada achieves a state of grace of believing in itself and steps to the negotiating table with Quebec as a psychological equal.

This will be the key debate of the 1990s: whether those of us who live outside Quebec can reinvent a country—not the Canada that was, but a Canada that could be. The only advantage we have is that in the post-Meech world, everything is negotiable. That means, for once, we can redesign this large land according to our own, rather than imported, values. Quebec knows where it wants to go; we must gain that same sense of direction and purpose.

At the same time, no accommodation will be possible unless Canadians outside Quebec understand Robert Bourassa, the enigmatic Quebec premier whose moods, methods and ideology will be pivotal in that process. Neither a federalist nor a separatist, he knows that the essence of politics is power, not law, and that Quebec can achieve the most by challenging the reality rather than the legality of the current impasse. That may not sound like much

Neither a federalist nor a separatist, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa is in politics to increase the power of his home province

of an improvement on Jacques Parizeau, but the Parti Québécois leader is no pragmatist. He is in politics for one purpose only—to turn Quebec into an autonomous republic.

Bourassa’s ultimate offer to English Canada will depend on how useful he believes we can be to Quebec, on what advantages we offer not available under independence. A common currency isn’t a bad start because that would require the co-ordination of monetary and fiscal policies and many other links. “Bourassa is in a totally enviable position right now, since he has become the articulator of Quebec's popular consensus,” says Prof. Charles Taylor, a McGill University political scientist close to the situation. “The failure of Meech Lake was not imputed to him. There is a good chance that he can manoeuvre the planned committee hearings on the future of Quebec so they produce something of a federalist option—even if it will make Meech look like a Sunday school picnic— which, incidentally, it always was.”

Taylor is optimistic that a non-independence solution is still possible because he believes that the Meech process achieved an invaluable fringe benefit. “Finally, the perception got through to Quebec that English Canada is not a monolith,” he points out. “That has trans-

formed the atmosphere in Quebec considerably, because the sense of having been rejected isn’t nearly as powerful as it might have been. If English Canada had followed Clyde Wells’s lead, we would now be moving to separation with absolute certainty.”

By next spring, French Canada will have formulated its demands, and unless English Canada alters its status quo mind-set, they will be interpreted as revolutionary attacks on the natural order of the Canadian universe. While we can and must exact a price for surrendering whatever jurisdictions are transferred to Quebec City, the starting point must be recognition that rejection of Meech Lake requires a brandnew pact between us. Whatever the details of that arrangement, it will be some form of sovereignty-association. That’s a wondrous label, because even if it sounds like simultaneous virginity and motherhood, it signifies anything we want it to mean.

One of the few historical precedents of sovereignty-association was the madcap constitution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which made no sense on paper or in reality— but lasted 51 years from 1867 to 1918. The most telling criticism of this hybrid format came from constitutional gadfly Eugene Forsey, who once dismissed sovereignty-association as “a horse that won’t start, let alone run: you can no more negotiate sovereignty-association than you can negotiate sour sugar, dry water, boiling ice or stationary motion.” Maybe, but then this country started in an equally contradictory state, being officially described as “a self-governing colony.”

“The key question,” says Prof. Taylor, “will be whether Quebec decides it wants to continue electing members to a federal Parliament— or if Ottawa becomes a kind of Brussels, with largely co-ordinating functions. The rest of the country will for the first time have to face the fundamental question of whether Canadian society should be based on purely individual rights or whether there is a place for collective goals.

“It really comes down to a division on that issue—and at the moment there is profound ambivalence about it. Certainly, Quebec will have to be acknowledged as an entity. When I heard Clyde Wells complaining that he was worried Meech Lake’s provisions for a distinct society would lead Quebec to special status, I thought, my God, he hasn’t seen anything yet.”

This country is launched on an irreversible process that will forever alter French-English relations. It’s high time we realized that there is nothing sacrosanct about the 147 clauses of the British North America Act. Quebec has been searching for an administrative format that would comfortably reflect its soul for more than two centuries. The re-confederation hammered out between us in the 1990s will be the sixth such constitutional arrangement, the others having been concluded in 1763, 1774, 1791, 1840 and 1867.

Montreal comedian Yvon Deschamps got it right when he once wisecracked: “I don’t know why the English think we’re inconsistent. All we want is an independent Quebec within a strong and united Canada.”