Distinctly Confusing Nation Building
About 15 years ago, the government of the day tried to rid itself of the demons of the demise of the Meech Lake Accord with a new effort at Nation Building called the Charlottetown Accord. As a member of Brian Mulroney’s PMO staff at the time, I clearly recall the arguments that were marshalled to undermine both of these bold attempts. Whether or not they were perfect approaches to the problems at hand, they were genuine attempts to heal Quebec’s wounds that naturally followed the 1982 Constitutional repatriation.
Fast forward to the 2006 Liberal leadership, and the tumult that came when some candidates appeared to reopen these debates by proposing to call Quebec a “Nation”.
Last evening, Prime Minister Harper added his support to the notion that Quebec is a “Nation” within a United Canada. Now, if the Oxford Dictionary crew put out a special Canadian political science version of their product, we might well find that “Distinct Society” and Quebec “is a Nation within a United Canada” are, in essence, synonymous.
Which begs the question: where was the Reform Party and the centrist Liberals when Meech Lake and Charlottetown were in need of such brave approaches to our national reality?
The SES Research Poll from November 16th provides us a clue perhaps:
“Taking a look at the national numbers, the movement in voter preference is within the margin of accuracy for the poll. Check out Quebec – major turbulence for the Conservatives (down fourteen points). When the Conservatives focus on their five priorities their numbers move up but that the focus on Afghanistan, pulling out of Kyoto and warm relations with George Bush has noticeably eroded Conservative support in Quebec.
The main beneficiary of the Conservative drop has been the BQ (up eight points). This illustrates the appeal that the Harper-led Conservatives had among soft nationalists in Quebec.
It’s a little early for a victory lap for the Liberals. Quebec is the most volatile in support right now. The Conservatives need to hold and expand support in Quebec to stay in government, the Liberals need to win support to block the Conservatives.
The Liberal leadership will be critical to the fortunes of both the Conservatives and the Liberals. A divided Liberal party (or anything that has a whiff of inappropriate behaviour by a leadership campaign) will be good news for the Harper Conservatives. If the Liberals come out united and have a leader who can have some sort of appeal to Quebecers – they will be back in the game.”
I distinctly recall the “no special status” furor of the mid 1980s and early 1990s, and that no matter how hard then Prime Minister Mulroney tried, the Trudeau Liberals and the Manning Reformers refused to let him piece the country together. In hindsight, this opposition appears to have been motivated by nothing more than bald-faced politics, as the concept of Quebec being a “Nation” has far darker undertones than the simple recognition of reality: that it is a “distinct” place. Language, history, legal system, these are all examples of why this has always been so.
So now we have a former Reformer and the would-be hier to the Trudeau mantle proposing to recognize Quebec in a fashion that, quite frankly, has never been sought by the majority of Quebecers. Call it a symbolic guesture, but the Supreme Court of Canada defers to just one body in Canada, and that’s our nation’s Parliament. I cannot imagine a future Supreme Court decision on an issue involving Quebec’s powers (such as the right to opt out of certain mandatory federal services, send delegates to Internation Meetings without Federal consent, issue passports), including the phrase “despite the fact that the House of Commons has recognized Quebec as a Nation within a united Canada, we have concluded that this motion has no meaning whatsoever in the context of the issue before us”.
Where were you 20 years ago?
Alberta, B.C. and Newfoundland & Labrador are just three Provinces that I’ve always found to feel distinct in their own way. Count the minutes until their politicians ask the question: what about us? And the First Nations’ will be equally interested in how this plays for their own status within the Provinces that were created hundreds of years after their ancestors made a home for themselves across the land.
It is all so distinctly confusing (or perhaps not at all), and does not end here.