BUSINESS WATCH

Bourassa is just as distinct as Mercredi

The Quebec premier may not spend much time in sweat lodges or doing rain dances, but his province is clearly a nation

Peter C. Newman September 9 1991
BUSINESS WATCH

Bourassa is just as distinct as Mercredi

The Quebec premier may not spend much time in sweat lodges or doing rain dances, but his province is clearly a nation

Peter C. Newman September 9 1991

Bourassa is just as distinct as Mercredi

BUSINESS WATCH

The Quebec premier may not spend much time in sweat lodges or doing rain dances, but his province is clearly a nation

PETER C. NEWMAN

Canada's new indoor sport-drafting a new constitution-may be a giant yawn, yet the contents of that document define the relationship between

citizens and their governments. That’s the most fundamental transaction in a democratic state, because it sets out the powers that determine the limits of collective and individual liberty.

Last week’s premiers’ meeting at Whistler, B.C., advanced that process a significant step, with the provincial leaders unanimously accepting the concept of self-government for Canada’s aboriginal peoples. That was a daring initiative because no one—Indian leaders included—knows exactly what self-government means. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Ovide Mercredi readily states there is no single definition of self-government, adding that to believe there could be betrays “a fundamental misunderstanding of native society,” which is far too diverse to operate by a single set of rules.

The crunch in that debate will come when Mercredi’s aspiration of giving Canada’s collective aboriginal peoples authority equivalent to a province clashes with Indian Affairs Minister Tom Siddon’s offer that native self-government should be limited to powers exercised by most municipalities.

Mercredi has made no secret of his intention to press for precisely such revolutionary concessions as an independent, native-run justice system that would operate outside the established Criminal Code. But despite their awareness of the Indian leader’s aims, the premiers at Whistler had no problem approving the radical change.

At least one federal minister—Benoît Bouchard, the leading Quebecer on the Mulroney cabinet’s unity committee—supports that concept, declaring that natives are “a distinct people, not a special-interest group.... They are nations, they are societies, and will be treated as such.” Most Canadians agree. A recent survey showed that 60 per cent of

Quebecers and 56 per cent of Canadians elsewhere support the entrenchment of aboriginal self-government in Canada’s Constitution.

From now on, Canada’s native peoples will be treated as a distinct society, which of course they are.

But there’s a paradox here.

The same polls that document public support for allowing the Indians to become a distinct society loosely connected with the rest of Canada show that an overwhelming proportion of Canadians (a cross-country average of 59 per cent, rising to 82 per cent in the West) reject any idea of Quebec becoming recognized as a distinct society. Only 22 per cent of anglophones are sympathetic to the concept, and certainly some premiers, particularly Clyde Wehs of Newfoundland and Gary Filmon of Manitoba, continue to oppose the idea.

“Why are we prepared to be understanding of the legitimate expectations of aboriginals and have a relatively low level of tolerance for equally reasonable, if different, expectations by Quebec?” Ralph Hedlin, a leading western commentator, asked recently in his Alberta Report column.

It’s a highly relevant question. There is no shadow of doubt that Quebec is at least as

distinct a society as that of the aboriginals. Robert Bourassa may not spend much time in sweat lodges and he would look awkward trying to do a rain dance, but his province is clearly a nation, at least in its sociological and cultural aspects.

At Confederation, Quebec was granted special status, including the right to be bilingual and to organize its civil law on French lines. “Of course Quebec is a distinct society,” insists Tom Berger, the former B.C. judge who is one of the country’s most enlightened constitutional experts. “Quebec’s distinctiveness ought to be recognized in the Constitution. The Civil Code gives it a distinct legal system. The French language is predominant in Quebec. Quebec has its own pension plan. It collects its own income tax. It has a special arrangement with Ottawa regarding immigration.”

What bothers Berger and others is that Bourassa’s insistence on enshrining his province’s special status will require a wholesale reconstruction of the Constitution. “Does the ordinary Quebecer sleep uneasily because Mr. Bourassa has not centralized in Quebec City the laundry list of government powers in the Allaire report?” Berger asks rhetorically. “I don’t believe it.”

Bourassa has insisted all along that Quebec’s becoming a distinct society would not destroy the national fabric. “We are asking for something that’s common sense,” he says. “The distinct society is not a society of privileged citizens. It is a society with a different culture, a society with a different legal system, a society with specific institutions.”

That's self-evident, as is the fact that nearly every other province entered Confederation with its own set of conditions. (Newfoundland even won special status for its margarine makers.) The problem is that Meech Lake (and presumably its soon-to-be-announced successor) elevated the distinct-society notion to an interpretive clause, which means that the Charter of Rights of Freedoms could be disregarded by the Quebec government at will.

Brian Mulroney is quite right to claim that “Quebecers have not been required to sacrifice the smallest part of their distinct character to be part of Canada.” But the trick will be to satisfy Quebec’s legal aspirations without wrecking the Constitution in the process. Bouchard has already hinted that this will be done by legitimizing Quebec’s distinct society “in a way so that it cannot be seen to be overriding the charter.”

Presumably, that will mean enshrining the relevant clause in the Constitution’s preamble. That would be a tidy solution, but a dangerous one for Bourassa to accept. That is where the impasse will come. It is, as the King of Siam once declared, a puzzlement.

A country in a predicament like Canada’s must hang its hopes on small advances. At Whistler last week, the nine premiers present (and Quebec, which wasn’t there but quickly fell into line) agreed to dismantle the trade barriers that keep our 62 breweries hived into their own provincial markets.

Maybe if we can all quaff Moosehead together, Canada won’t break up after all.