Maybe wading through that minefield was a good idea. Maybe we’ll never have to do it again.
A SYMBOL SOLUTION
Maybe wading through that minefield was a good idea. Maybe we’ll never have to do it again.
Well, that didn’t hurt at all, did it? On Monday, the House of Commons declared that Quebec—sorry, the “Québécois”—constitute “a nation within a united Canada.” The collateral damage was minimal. One ministerial resignation: Michael Chong, the chronically underemployed minister of intergovernmental affairs, is now free to make himself busier by becoming an actual Maytag repairman. Shouts of alarm from coast to coast. And the alarming spectacle of a House of Commons motion defended by a senator, Marjorie LeBreton, who would never have to vote on it; and by Lawrence Cannon,
Stephen Harper’s bilingually incoherent Quebec lieutenant (“Bien, in English the Quebecer is a Québécois,,).
What does it all mean? The Prime Minister offered a variation on Louis Armstrong’s definition of jazz—if you have to ask, you ain’t never gonna know—when he told reporters, from his preferred scrum position halfway up a House of Commons staircase, that “the Québécois know who they are.” Ahh. This isn’t Louis Armstrong, it’s Fight Club. The first rule of Québécois nation is, nobody talks about Québécois nation.
Whatever the merits of recognizing Quebec’s national status, the whole lurid mess had unexpected side benefits, too. Chief among them is the near certainty that no federal government will be tempted by constitutional entrenchment of symbolic change for Quebec anytime soon. It is simply too mine-
laden. This is probably true even if Liberals select Michael Ignatieff as their leader and Ignatieff manages to get elected prime minister. True, Ignatieff did say, as recently as Sept. 10 in Quebec City: “Other candidates have said, ‘Yes, it is necessary to recognize Quebec in the Constitution, but to constitutionally recognize Quebec as a nation is difficult.’ Well, yes it is difficult, but it has to be done.” This now stands as such a spectacularly reckless policy that even Ignatieff has probably figured it out. “It has to be done,” and “in the Constitution,” no longer mean that it has to be done in the Constitution. This is a bullet we have dodged.
In pondering the meaning of great and intricate moments, it is always handy to fall back on quibbles and autobiography. In an essay in the following pages, Tom Flanagan lumps me in with such appalled “keepers of the
CORNERED ON A SIMPLE QUESTION, HARPER GAVE A SIMPLE ANSWEI
Trudeau legacy” as Andrew Coyne and Michael Bliss on the question of Quebec’s nationhood. I am afraid Flanagan flatters me unduly.
I supported the Meech Lake accord and I have often said I have no trouble calling Quebec a nation. These days I almost always add that it is a bad idea to discuss only one “nation” in a complex country; that the nation of which I am fondest is called Canada, and that we should all mention it more often; that Quebecers belong to the big nation as well as the little one; and that at any rate, once bitten by Meech, I am twice shy about opening the Constitution to shovel any part of this mess into it.
But when the question is put, simply and without adornment, you are stuck with what you believe. Is Quebec a nation? Sure. If I were an MP in the House of Commons this week, I would have voted in favour of Stephen
Harper’s resolution, even though Harper and the amazing Lawrence Cannon made it as hard as they could to support them. As Trudeauism, that’s pretty weak tea.
Now, Tom Flanagan has been a busy fellow, and there is no reason he should have known the details of my constitutional philosophy. For the longest time it could not have mattered less. This is actually an important point. The exquisite luxury Canadians have enjoyed for the past decade is that nobody had to worry about whether so-andso believed in the civic nation, the ethnic nation, the quantum nano-nation or the sixfinger revolving-around-Saturn nation. For several years we actually had our eye on the balls sane societies get to care about: the creation and distribution of prosperity, justice and fairness. Then Ignatieff got a bright idea and everybody started tripping over the furniture again. Because make no mistake: you can draw a straight line from Michael Ignatieff to the Harper motion. And when you can draw a straight line from Michael Ignatieff to anything, it’s a bit of a banner day.
The Prime Minister was adamant, all summer long, that defining Quebec is not the
federal government’s business. Then Ignatieff released his campaign manifesto in September, calling for “ratification of a new Constitution” to, among other tasks, recognize Quebec as a nation. The Quebec wing of the federal Liberals, in a hastily called and procedurally dubious special meeting, adopted a version of Ignatieff’s language. Bernard Landry, the former Parti Québécois premier, wrote a newspaper article calling on Harper to follow. Ignatieff “paved the way for you,” Landry wrote. The Bloc Québécois (following, it must be said, the urging of a mischievous blogger named Wells) forced the question by putting the recognition of a Quebec nation in a votable “supply day” motion—a debate on a topic chosen by an opposition party, not the government.
Cornered, Harper turned to fight. “My preference, Mr. Speaker, has been well-known,” he said in the Commons on Nov. 22. “I believe
that it is not the job of the federal Parliament. It is the job of the legislature of Quebec.
“But the Bloc Québécois has asked us to define this. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because it reminds us that all Canadians have a say in the future of this country... So having been asked by the Bloc to define the Québécois, we must take a position. Our position is clear. Do the Québécois form a nation within Canada? The answer is yes. Do the Québécois form an independent nation? The answer is no and it will always be no.”
This was judo, of a sort. Harper was turning the Bloc motion against it, twisting the separatist opposition’s attempt to use national recognition for greater autonomy into a strategy to bind Quebec more fully into the Canadian fabric. I was out of Ottawa when Harper spoke, but friends who were in the Commons tell me they have never seen
Duceppe so angry.
But there is more to life than short-sheeting Gilles Duceppe. I was disappointed that Harper’s speech made no mention of Canada as a nation. I was uncomfortable with teasing one definition out of all the possible definitions and variable geometries Canadians can attach to their identity and allegiance. Finally, though, I had to put myself in Harper’s shoes. Cornered and asked a simple question, why not give a simple answer? Celebrate other allegiances later. Acknowledge this one now.
It is not glorious, but too many people have bought pain by seeking glory on the battlefields of symbolic politics in Canada. This time is different. First, there is a crucial juridical difference. The Harper resolution is neither a constitutional change nor a prelude to constitutional change. An awful lot of Liberals who fought Meech on the explicit grounds that they feared its “distinct society” provision would trump the Charter of Rights have abandoned their old talking points. It is not possible for a simple Commons resolution to harm the Charter.
Second, there is a subtle but important tactical difference. Harper has no taste for the escalating tension and drama that characterized Brian Mulroney’s sales job for Meech. The mad brinkmanship of the Meech years—buy this amendment or we shoot this beaver—is, or should be, a thing of the past. It is a far healthier state of affairs to have a file steered by Stephen Harper and the Liberal who Harper’s office reached out to before tabling the motion, Stéphane Dion, than it was to have the Meech file piloted by those notorious drama queens, Mulroney and Lucien Bouchard.
Dion, in particular, has been entirely consistent throughout the piece. His first “open letter,” when he became a minister in 1996, was about recognizing Quebec’s unique character. In 2003 he told the Commons, “If the question was.. .whether Quebec is a nation within the Canadian nation, we would vote yes right away.”
But Dion has also been reluctant to escalate, dramatize and romanticize. He rejects both Ignatieff’s starry-eyed view that a few words one way or the other might reconcile Quebec to Canada. And he rejects the thesis of the Trudeau nostalgists that the same words might rend one nation into two. “I would say
that technically speaking, the motion is accurate and I will vote for it,” Dion said during debate on Harper’s motion. “However, I would invite anyone to not too much hope for the effectiveness of this kind of strategy to keep our unity together.”
Precisely so. A country deserves to live if it offers justice, prosperity and democratic power to its citizens. By that standard, Canada deserves to live more than most. It shouldn’t totter on the brink just because we give one another a little benefit of the doubt. It won’t if we can keep our wits and move, as briskly as possible, away from symbol and back to real issues.
The people who thought “reconciliation” would bring miracles in Quebec are already learning that they hoped too much, or too naively. Those who fear the worst should calm down too. The separatists will take their national recognition and use it around the
world to peddle separatism? Let them. They tried to turn the constitutional repatriation, the Charter of Rights and the Clarity Act against Canada too. It was a doomed enterprise every time.
Put yourself in the shoes of some local potentate in Brussels or Washington or Santiago, trying to appear sympathetic as Gilles Duceppe spins his latest tale of woe. Quebecers enjoy the same constitutional rights as other Canadians, elect their own provincial government, almost always have real clout in Ottawa. The recession of the early ’90s and the cuts of 1994 have given way to prosperity, rising transfer payments, falling taxes. And now the tyrants in Ottawa have formally recognized Quebec’s national status in a united Canada? Of course Duceppe and his friends will complain. Of course they wil be laughed out of court. The lesson of the week, for those of us who believe in a united Canadian nation, is the lesson that has always paid the surest dividends:
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.