Friday, April 04, 2008

We need a little Clarity on Quebec

After Conservative intergovernmental affairs labour minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn’s pronouncement that a Conservative majority government would re-open the constitution to address “Quebec’s historical demands” the backtracking quickly began.

Out to quickly distance the Conservative government from Blackburn’s comments was intergovernmental affairs transport minister Lawrence Cannon, emphasizing Blackburn was expressing his own views, not the government’s:

"There is absolutely no appetite to open the constitution and to have any amendments to the constitution. We practice a federalism of openness in Quebec as well as with the rest of the provinces."

Still, after Cannon’s rebuke Blackburn left the door open, saying the time will come:

"As a Quebecer I think we can all wish to one day see all of these measures form part of the Canadian constitution. Now, to do that, there has to be a will on the part of the provinces. The circumstances have to lend themselves to being able to proceed in that path - I think everybody recognizes that the fruit is not ripe at this stage and we will continue with our agenda."

It will ultimately be up, said Blackburn, to Stephen Harper, who has conveniently been out of the country during all this nonsense. Here’s what he said to La Presse though in December (via Danielle and Paul):
“Stephen Harper souhaite que la résolution qui reconnaît les Québécois comme une nation soit incluse dans la Constitution canadienne”

Or, badly translated:

"Stephen Harper wish that the resolution which recognizes the Inhabitants of Quebec as a nation is included in the Canadian Constitution"

Which of course differs from what Jason Kenney was telling the English media last year:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no plans to take up Mario Dumont's offer to re-open the Constitution, one of his top lieutenants said Monday.

"Our focus is on concrete, tangible deliverables, not abstractions,'' Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity, said in an interview.

So, if I’m following all this correctly, the Conservatives are saying we totally want to get the Quebec as a nation thing into the constitution so give us a majority and hey maybe the time will be right, but hey English Canada the time isn’t right at the moment so totally don’t worry about it.

It all seems purposely confusing and misleading. The Conservatives want to have their cake (hey Quebec, we’re going to take care of you) and eat it too (don’t worry rest of Canada, not gonna happen). National unity shouldn’t be used as partisan ploy for political gain. The consequences can be serious.

A guy who knows a little about national unity and what not, Stephane Dion, is calling BS on the Harper government:

Dion, a former minister in charge of the unity file and a constitutional academic before he came into politics, said the Prime Minister wants Quebecers to believe he'd recognize their nationhood within the Constitution, but in fact, has no plans to do so.

Dion said that Harper has been deliberately vague with Quebecers about how he intends to handle nationalistic aspirations in that province – dating all the way back to his campaign speeches in that province in the last election campaign.

"The Prime Minister should say, very clearly, which federal powers he wants to transfer to provinces, and to the province of Quebec in a special deal maybe. He must clarify that," Dion said yesterday.

What Stephane didn’t say, but what he could (and should) have, is that we need a little clarity here, if you will.

I found this interesting:

Senior Liberals said they suspected the Constitution was thrown out for public debate merely to make mischief for Dion, who is dealing with internal party strife and huge dips in party support in Quebec.

History has shown that debates over Quebec's place in the federation can prove hugely divisive in the Liberal party and can pit Quebec Liberals against those in the rest of Canada. The fact that this information was leaked to an English-language newspaper seemed to feed that suspicion.

Maybe, maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the Conservative strategy here. I also think Blackburn went off script. But a few things:

a) The purposely vague, say one thing in English and another in French actions of the Conservatives can easily be exploited by pointing-out the discrepancies and calling for clarifications, as Dion has done here.

b) This is an opportunity to stake out clear and defined policy ground for the Liberal Party. Articulate an alternative policy, a federalist alternative. The BQ and Conservatives are both fighting over the same soft-nationalist ground. Who is speaking for federalist, pro-Canada Quebecers?

c) I recognize such a position may alienate the establishment members running the LPC(Q) (into the ground). Well, it’s not like they’re helping much right now anyway. C'est la vie.

d) A strong federalist push would play to Dion’s strengths, and his base, and the Liberal base. The Conservatives want to give Dion a chance to play Captain Canada again? Fine with me.

Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers


Yvan St-Pierre said...

To me, there is no inner contradiction in feeling distinct and complementary national ties as a Québécois and as a Canadian. I also believe Mr Dion feels just as strongly as I do about that. Why do you ask us to go to war with part of who we are in the name of another part of ourselves?

Mike514 said...

"b) This is an opportunity to stake out clear and defined policy ground for the Liberal Party."

I think that's the whole point - the Liberals will likely rip themselves apart trying to define this stuff.

Remember the last leadership convention when Ignatieff raised this issue? Remember the various (sometimes angry) difference of opinions raised by his colleagues? That's probably what Harper's trying to exploit.

Another negative for the Liberals: The media tends to exploit Liberal divisions, especially lately and especially in Quebec. Expect a free ride for Tories and bumpy ride for Liberals from the media.

Jeff said...

Yvan, I'm not the one that brought this nation thing to the fore or wants to put it in the constitution. Why do you want me to recognize one group within Canada as being more worthy of recognition than any other? If we recognize the Quebec nation can we recognize every other nationality in Canada in the same way? If not, why not?

Mike, because we're so together right now as it is? The media are going to do what the media are going to do. The Liberal Party needs to decide to stand for something, and it needs to be a position that is saleable in all 10 provinces and three territories. A national solution, if you will.

Jeff said...

And I should add Yvan that I'm not asking you to choose between "feeling distinct and complementary national ties as a Québécois and as a Canadian."

Is there no middle ground between constitutional entrenchment and shedding your Québécois identity?

Yvan St-Pierre said...

BCer in T,

My own point is certainly not that we should jump into another constitutional psychodrama in any predictable future, predictable as of now at least.

But I think that keeping the communication channels open, wrt this whole Québec-Canada dilemma, is an important thing for all of us, and that to keep this openness credible, we should all quit the "our way or the highway" attitude, including with respect to the Constitution.

No "knives on the throat", but no "over my dead body" either. How about that?

Lord Kitchener's Own said...

I think this is your best point here:

"I recognize such a position may alienate the establishment members running the LPC(Q) (into the ground). Well, it’s not like they’re helping much right now anyway. C'est la vie."

(I also love that the last line is en francais!).

It's kinda a Nellie McClung moment for the Libs vis a vis Quebec. "Never retreat, never explain, never apologize--get the thing done and let them howl".

Ironically, while the Conservatives are poking the bear of "soft nationalism" at the moment because it's politically expedient, sovereignty just isn't what it used to be in Quebec. Some will tell you that fighting for Canada risks alienating Quebeckers, but I think these people are forgetting the many, MANY Quebeckers who feel alienated that people don't appeal to them as CANADIANS enough.

Plus, as everyone knows, you play with the "soft nationalists" in Quebec at you're own risk. It doesn't make the rest of the country REMOTELY happy (and I'm in cozy, Quebec-friendly Ontario... some of this stuff can make Albertans absolutely apoplectic!).

I'm not totally convinced that playing footsie with the nationalists in Quebec is good politics, AND I'm convinced it leads to reactions in the ROC like this post, where noottawa defines "Flexible federalism" for Quebec, from the rest of Canada's point of view as "Always having to bend over". Or the post "Tories vow to repeat history, breakup Canada" where David expresses what is, to me, the view of the VAST majority of Canadians outside of Quebec: "There is no place for soft nationalists in this country. Either you are for Canada, or you are not, and if you are a soft nationalist, you are not".

The math of this has always confused me. Appeal to a vocal minority in Quebec with arguments that enrage a majority of Canadians. Only Mulroney has ever made it work (for a TINY fraction of time) and how did that work out again? Oh right, we got the Bloc out of the deal. Well done.

I really wish we could settle this once and for all. Keep the cake and admire it, or eat it Quebec (that's right, I said "Eat it, Quebec"! :-) lol).

'Cause we're not going to open up the constitution in a vain attempt to let you do both.

I think everyone knows that the soft nationalists are hiding behind the "soft" to obfuscate the "nationalist". We're not dim. We get that they'll ask for A, B and C, and that when we give them A, B and C they'll ask for X, Y and Z. There's always something more they'll want for their nation. They're NATIONALISTS. It's right there in their name.

And I can read.

Yvan St-Pierre said...

This is so depressing.

David Graham - said...

Yvan, there is no contradiction between a Quebecker and a Canadian, and the notion that there is is the source of the problem.

Quebeckers, anglo, franco, or allo, are more than welcome to define themselves in any way they want. The rub is in making it mutually exclusive with being Canadian, which it is not. Separatists and federalists acknowledge this clearly: separatists say there is no contradiction, I'm simply not a Canadian. Federalists say I am a Canadian. Many of them say I am a Quebecker and a Canadian, some of them will even say I am a Quebecker first, but I am a Canadian, but they all say they are Canadian.

What a soft nationalist says is I am a Quebecker first, and while I hold a Canadian passport, It does not define me - even though Quebec was an equal partner in the very creation of the country we call Canada - but if we change the definition of Canada it can define me. In-so-doing they ask that Canada insert the improperly defined term that Quebec is a nation into the constitution.

What does it mean?

Well, words have meaning, and if the Constitution defines Quebec as a nation, then what is to stop Quebec from declaring themselves a constitutionally recognised independent nation? Why should we even consider going down this road?

The way I see it, that very ambiguity is what soft nationalists want. For some reason, this group of Quebeckers refuses to unequivocally say that they are both Quebeckers and Canadians unless the very definition of Canada is changed.

In essence, what they want is Canada without Canada. The autonomist branch of soft nationalists are the worst, wanting what amounts to an independent country with federal funding.

I grew up in a separatist part of rural Quebec. I'm no west-islander. What I see when I look back home is a manipulative group, a small portion of the population, that sees the advantages of being Canadians but refuses to acknowledge them.

So ya, I think soft nationalists are mythical. They really do want a separate country, they just want someone else to pay for it. With that in mind, it is time to stop pretending that soft nationalists are anything other than separatists.

Yvan St-Pierre said...


Much of what you write here could be the subject of constructive conversation, and I wouldn't be srurprised that we could agree on many things, yet I still resist the stark moral judgements that you seem to make, at least from my perspective. What is so wrong with Québec anyway, that it has such a politically powerful group of unreasonable people? Is it something in the water?

Could you at all consider that there may be an explanation for many of us turning out to feel defensive with respect to our language and culture, and that this can cause political problems that do not in themselves make us mean exploiters of the poor majority of Canadians who can't have a normal country because of those crazy Québécois? Didn't your ancestors just as well as mine make a commitment to something they knew wouldn't be a garden of roses? So why can't we get constructive on both sides of the freakin divide? That's my question. And the answer many of us have on the tip of their tongue is this: why should THEY give a damn, THEY are the majority. Hence defensiveness, hence conflict, hence bashing, hence defensiveness... Bad hygrade sausages - you got those in your country?

We should have a few collective beers together, that's what.

David Graham - said...


I don't drink, although reopening this issue could change that. ;)

I don't think it is anything in the water in Quebec. In my experience, the water there is the most drinkable in the world. But there does seem to be a blame game going on that is illogical and leads to the defensiveness you describe -- on both sides.

The federalists are defensive because the nationalists have a completely insatiable appetite for what are seen as completely unreasonable demands, and cannot take no for an answer. There have been four referenda directly related to their demands, defeated every time - two provincially, two nationally (oh not *that* word!). How many times do we have to revisit the same territory?

Quebec's nationalists are defensive of their language. Fair enough, je suis aussi fier d'�re capable de parler le fran�is. I have no desire to see the French language hurt or the culture destroyed.

But Quebec is not an exclusively French place any more than Canada is an exclusively English place. To define culture based on arbitrary lines on a map, and to say that this section is a nation inside but apart from another nation, says that it is.

If French Canadians want to recognise themselves as a distinct group within Canada, start a website and organise a foundation to promote the language and the culture, but don't threaten to change the Constitution to demand special privileges that cannot, should not, and will not be afforded to any other group of Canadians. It forces the creation of an us-vs-them atmosphere where none is needed that is completely unnecessary and is endlessly perpetuated by soft nationalists seeking the aformentioned unreasonable demands.

What are these unreasonable demands? Let's go through the ones listed in the Globe and Mail article that kicked off this flurry of blogging.

- Recognition of Quebec as a distinct society;

What does this mean? To me it means that Quebec, a geographically defined region, does not consider itself a part of Canadian society. That, to me, is silly.

- Participation in appointing Supreme Court judges;

What business do provinces have in appointing Supreme Court justices? The demand for such suggests that Quebec's mission is to control the appeal processes of its own laws, demanding an autonomy as I have described before -- (the privileges of) Canada without (the obligations of) Canada.

- Increased powers in immigration;

Is Quebec planning to exclude people who are otherwise planning to come to Canada?

- Limiting Ottawa's spending powers in areas of provincial jurisdiction;

This is very vague. What does it mean, Canada cannot provide money to the provinces for social programs? It doesn't make sense.

- A Quebec veto on constitutional change.

Maybe, but to me constitutional change should be a matter for the people, not for the provinces. The Victoria Formula, which I only learned about recently, would be an acceptable compromise, however, as it gives most of Canada a veto.

And of course the recent one, constitutional recognition as a nation. This is the most unreasonable demand, as it essentially asks Canada to grant Quebec a declaration of independence, when even with the most rigged election in Canadian history they could not get approval for such a thing in the 1995 referendum.

All the changes demanded by the soft nationalists -- the hard nationalists openly demand separation -- are aimed at removing Canada from the equation. It screams to me that nationalists are nationalists, soft or otherwise.

So, maybe with us all spilling our guts on these opinions we can start working toward a compromise, but that is exactly the position I advocate against, because whenever federalists give an inch, nationalists take a mile, and it takes a generation for us all to recover.

Monkey Loves to Fight said...

If they try this, it will bite them hard. I would argue if it will hurt them anywhere it will be the West more so the Ontario. After all part of the reason the Reform Party came about was they were tired of the PCs offering special deals to Quebec. I think we should focus on what unites us all as Canadians rather than trying to divide the country. The issue is dead, lets move on.

Yvan St-Pierre said...


I won't take issue at all with your substantive arguments about any of the "demands" you refer to, even if I do disagree on much of what you write, because it would take us in too much specifics. But in my view, the seeds of discord happen way prior to these issues anyway, and they rely on the fact that our 2 linguistic communities develop separate "national" stories - with their own heroes and villains and symbols - that we are separately going to buy into, for the simple reason that the "Other" national story is not as readily available in one's own language.

I also find it interesting that you should denounce Québec nationalism as if your own perspective wasn't just as fiercely nationalist as that which you attack. Shouldn't the question be whether we can attempt to understand each other's reasons for holding different views as to the type of country that we want to live in, so that we can get our respective "national" prides to work together rather than one trying to impose its rule on the other?

I'm not opposing Québec and Canada here BTW, I'm just pointing to two rival views of Canada that find relatively more support in one or the other of two separate linguistic spheres. And it so happens that the provincial governement of Québec is the only political ground where North American francophones can determine some measure of public policy without asking for permission in another language, so that it plays a central part in much of the french-spoken "national" stories.

Please understand that what I say is not intended in only one direction. There is a growing number of people in Québec - maybe thanks, sadly, to crumbling bridges and schools - who are trying to shake off the victim ethos that has stuck in our own culture as a linguistic minority, and which played a major role in this conflict with other Canadians, but our job isn't made any easier when, at every twist of the partisan dogfight, the english language media AND readership gets all up in arms at how un-Canadian we francophone Quebeckers really are, deep down, apart from those of us who will just happen to defend unconditionally the very version of the Canadian dream that was built through the english language "national" storytelling.

When you guys do that, you must know somehow that you play in the hand of those who clearly do want our country to break up, don't you? I understand that you respect their honesty, but I don't see why this should be a reason for you to play the role they want you to play.

At any rate, you do seem to have your views pretty pinned down on this, and I don't really want to waste any more of your time. I truly wish you all the best, 'cos I may not be Canadian enough for you, but I still think I'm an OK guy. I'll probably try to adress your substantive points on my own blog soon enough. Cheers then, even if it has to be Canada Dry. ;)

David Graham - said...


And therein lies the disconnect. Parliament and federal government conducts its operations completely bilingually -- that is, in English and French.

The victim ethos in Quebec that you describe is very much self-imposed, yet I always get the feeling that the rest of Canada is blamed for this feeling in Quebec.

Personally, I blame the end of the Duplessis era coupled with the collapse of the catholic church in the province, which left Quebec victimised with the oppressor no longer there to lash out at -- and so the lashing out went to the one authority that was still there: Canada.

My opinions are firm in this. I have no patience whatsoever for appeasers because the inevitable result is the Bloc Quebecois and another referendum, which can be summarised as: "Look, Canada is willing to negotiate, let's stab them in the back!"

Quebec, in spite of their claims to the contrary, are easily the most powerful force in Canada. Of the last 8 prime ministers, 3 were from Quebec, 4 were not from Quebec, and 1 was an adoptive Quebecker. Of those, every single federal majority term in the last 45 years was won by a Quebecker, who collectively were in power 35 of the 45 years. That's a lot of influence.

I understand what you are saying about the different stories, but I disagree fundamentally that the government of Quebec is the only place for francophones to make their case and influence policy in French. It is indeed the government of Canada that claims this title.

Does my hardline take help the nationalist cause in Quebec? I don't think so, though logic says it would. History has shown us that it's the hardliners that keep Canada together, and the appeasers who bring us to the brink. Every time.

I am looking forward to continuing this on your blog. I suspect that Jeff is too. :)

Yvan St-Pierre said...

Just a minute correction in the meantime, David, if I may.

I did use the word "determine" where you have apparently understood the word "influence". English-speaking Canadians can determine what happens in Ottawa, but french-speaking Canadians can indeed influence that process. It just happens to be the reverse in Québec City. I just couldn't let that one escape here, but I do look forward quite a bit as well to our future exchanges.

Altavistagoogle said...

Quebec's traditional demand is to have Quebec become a country.