Home CommentaryOpinions A stocking’s-full of coal for the nation

A stocking’s-full of coal for the nation

by Archives January 8, 2008

Christmas is a difficult time for even the best of us. Trying to find that perfect gift for each family member and friend is a terrible enigma, and everyone has as least once been the bearer of some ill-conceived, unwelcomed monstrosity of a gift (whether a subscription to National Ornithologist, his-and-hers label-makers, or the best-of-disco 12-disc set). With one’s own missteps in mind, one can almost empathize with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s poorly-thought-out Christmas gift to the nation – his announcement over the break that he believed the time was right for constitutionally recognizing Quebec’s “distinct national character”.
Canadians have twice been down the road to constitutionalizing Quebec’s “distinct status” (under the ill-conceived guidance of the Mulroney conservatives), and twice the country has rejected any attempts at dismantling a Confederation that, though flawed, has provided Canadians with security and prosperity almost unparalleled throughout the world, and which has survived longer than almost any constitutional democracy. It was right of them to reject the Charlettown and Meech Lake Accords, for that way lies the unending civil conflict. If we are to recognize the distinct nationhood and rights of French Quebecois, what then of the more than one million French Canadians beyond Quebec’s borders? If all Quebeckers, then what distinctive character is possessed by an Anglophone Montrealer that does not find its mirror in the distinct character of any of the Maritime Provinces? If we recognize Quebec’s “historical compact” with English Canada, how then do we avoid recognition of the prior, and arguably more legitimate, claims of the Canada’s aboriginal population (to say nothing in the indigenous populations within Quebec itself)? How equally to avoid recognizing the suddenly legitimate constitutional claims of the increasing number of distinct cultural communities throughout the country?
Beyond mere cultural conflict, it is worth thinking briefly about a number of effects likely to stem from any “distinct society” recognition. Most obvious among these is the danger of including any new language into the Constitution at a time when the text of the document seems increasingly to serve only as a pretext for the legislative platform of the Supreme Court. In the years since a truly activist bench began its jurisprudence in 1995, the Court has expanded the most obscure sections of the Charter in order to “discover” equality rights where no text existed, to establish limits on constitutional guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and association, and to expand judges’ powers to near equality with parliament. One does not have to disagree with the politics behind these decisions to recognize what room for judicial interpretation would be opened by the constitutional entrenchment of this province’s “special rights”.
Almost as important is the threat that any new independence would pose to Quebec’s influence within Canada. In 1968, the problem was characterized perfectly by Pierre Trudeau in his rhetorical question: how can a province expect to receive greater independence than its partners, without being willing to give up any of its influence over the their shared government?
That contradiction, which sits at the heart of this “distinct society” nonsense, was on full display at the recent Bali conference on climate change. As a result of Prime Minister Harper’s waffling on Quebec’s status as a nation, the province felt entitled to send its own delegation to the conference to ensure that Quebec’s particular interests were represented. At the same time, however, the Charest government was scandalized . . . scandalized! . . . that Canada’s own delegation should therefore more clearly reflect the interests of the remaining provinces (read: the oil producers).
What sort of a province could reasonably expect to gain greater independence, yet to retain all of its influence? To ask the question is to answer it.
Notwithstanding the absurdity of this proposal, one almost has to admire the Prime Minister’s sense of irony. Stephen Harper entered into Canadian politics to counter the corruption and regional pandering practiced by the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives. Now Prime Minister himself, Harper is beginning to channel Mulroney’s legacy at precisely the moment when its corruption is on full display before the nation’s capital.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment