Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Liberal Party of Canada needs to re-think its approach to Quebec

Our current Prime Minister has an amazing take on the history of the repatriation of the Constitution, and is reluctant to celebrate our magnificent Charter of Rights and Freedoms because he think's it might upset some people in Quebec.

The new NDP leader jumped on the same bandwagon that the separatists set rolling, buying into the myth that the Constitution needs to be changed in order to persuade "Quebec" that they should "agree" to the Constitution.

What nonsense!

The correct position:

The correct take on our Constitution's repatriation and Charter is set out very clearly by Bob Rae:

Another myth that should be blown to smithereens is that the Charter is a “centralizing” document. Canada today is the most decentralised federation in the world, and the Charter does not give any additional powers to the federal government. 

Rather, it limits the powers of all governments.

This has been reaffirmed countless times by the Supreme Court of Canada in countless cases since 1982. If parliament or provincial legislatures aren’t prepared to recognise individual rights, the courts will step in, not in the name of either level of government, but in the name of freedom.

I also campaigned hard for Meech and Charlottetown, honourable efforts at improving the Constitution. But that in no sense implied that the Charter was a mistake or something that required an apology. The constitutional door is always open, and constitutional business is always unfinished. But the gnashing of teeth about the Charter and patriation has to stop. It is unworthy and unnecessary.

Another myth floating around is that Quebec has the unilateral right to secede from the country on the basis of a question controlled by the provincial assembly, in an election controlled by the assembly, and with the support of 50 percent plus one of the population voting.

This approach has been specifically rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada. Quebec is not an oppressed minority, Canada is not a dictatorship, Canadian federalism, democracy, and the protection of minorities are all real things. A “clear vote on a clear question” would trigger discussions, not secession. The fantasies on this issue, now being fuelled not just by the Parti Quebecois but by the NDP in their “Sherbrooke Declaration”, have to be understood as pandering, an appeasement defies logic and constitutional reason.

Let’s celebrate the Charter and the fact that the constitution is ours, without apology and without wringing our hands. Let’s have a government prepared to celebrate the Canadian constitution without qualification.

However, this does not end the matter of the Liberal Party of Canada's policies with regard to Quebec.

LPC needs to reconsider its Quebec Policies:

Bob Rae's summary is good but it deals only with the role of the Charter and the Constitution, as well as the rights of Quebec to unilaterally secede from the country.

This policy of the LPC (to accept the law as laid down by the Supreme Court of Canada, and to stand by the validity of the repatriation of the Constitution despite Levesque's myths at the time) is in stark contrast with Mulcair's take on the right of Quebec to secede with a vote of 50% plus 1 vote in a referendum, with the question set by and binding by that province's assembly.

That position of the NDP is not consistent with the law of the land, nor is it supported by millions of Canadians who live outside Quebec.

At the same time, the anniversary of the Charter also serves to remind us that, 30 years after the repatriation of the Constitution, Quebec is still not a signatory to the most fundamental compact of our democracy.   As such, New Democrats will continue on the path laid out by Jack Layton, working to create the conditions that will one day allow Quebec to embrace the Canadian constitutional framework.

However, those issues are not by any stretch of the imagination the only or most important of the issues relating to Quebec's relationship with the rest of Canada.

It is in this area that our party needs to start a vigorous, clear and comprehensive dialogue amongst LPC members and Supporters, and other Canadians.

And it is here that we have to reconsider the proposal tabled by Michael Ignatieff, and now embraced by the NDP under Layton and Mulcair: the role of Quebecers in Canada.

This issue of the Quebecois as a nation, and this is the NDP's latest position in this issue:

We will work tirelessly to give real meaning to the unanimous recognition that the Québécois form a nation within Canada.

The Conservative Party's view of Canada and Quebec's role in it:

The Conservative Party does not share the same zeal as the NDP in this regard, nor do they share the NDP interpretation of where this leads to. Harper's new Tories are in a category all by themselves: believers in reducing the role of the federal government (including especially any role in maintaining national programs through its funding abiliy coupled with obligations by the provinces to meet certain standards).

The Conservatives are working hard to delegate most of the governance of Canada to the provinces, consistent with Stephen Harper's firewall attitude of some years back. 

The only difference is that now that Harper has his majority government (due to the inability of the opposition parties to cooperate to replace his government by one more in tune with 60% of Canadian voters), he is able to build multiple firewalls using the federal government as the builder, rather than individual provinces having to erect such firewalls themselves.

What this means is that Harper would whittle down the elements that make Canada a relatively strong federal state with substantial devolution of major powers to the provinces, so that we end up becoming what right wing Republicans want the USA to become: a government run by states with the federal government's power reduced to a few defined issues and a redistribution of tax revenues to the states role.

We can see the dangers of this Harper approach in the Tory's latest move to devolve power to the provinces in the environmental field. The steps taken in the last week or so are flawed, because the Tories believe that a province (such as Alberta or Ontario) can make decisions on environmental matters without having to take the rest of Canada into consideration. Harper believes any province can set the emissions of greenhouse gases without regard to the impact on the other provinces or on the rest of the world, and is working towards achieving this firewall protection by abdicating the federal government's role to protec t the realm of all of Canada in such cases.

The New Liberal Policy towards Quebec:

The NDP under Layton and Mulcair want to grant Quebec substantial additional powers as a province, under the guise of the Québécois form a nation within Canada concept.

And the NDP, driven by its Quebec wing and its Quebec centre of gravity of MPs, will take steps consistent with the Sherbrooke Declaration to achieve this, including asymmetrical federalism.

The LPC agreed to the motion in the House that the Québécois form a nation within Canada, as Ignatieff proposed, despite resistance to this concept by a big block of Liberals, starting with Dion.

This is where the battleground lies, and this is where the LPC will either arrive at policies which are more attractive to many residents in Quebec, or be frozen out of that province for the next 2 to 4 decades.

Bob Rae has a history of supporting changes to accomodate the aspirations of Quebecers, such as those included in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.

We need to debate (1) the concept of what can be done to meet the national aspirations of the "Quebecois" within Quebec, while (2) protecting the laws of the land with respect to the rights of any one province to secede – as laid down by our Supreme Court; (3) the fact that the Constitution was legally and morally validly repatriated, and (4) the fact that the Charter of Rights is to apply to all persons in any province, including inside Quebec notwithstanding the recognition of the Quebecois as a nation.

And part of that debate should include an open discussion of
(1) whether and
(2) how
asymmetrical federalism favouring more rights and powers to the province of Quebec in areas of federal governance power that affect the national aspirations of the Quebecois in that province, should be applied by a Liberal federal government, subject to the above carveouts to protect the charter of rights application in all provinces.

This would not preclude a powerful role for the federal government in proposing and maintaining national standards for certain programs and principles, and protecting the country as a whole in cases where provincial policies do or might impact other provinces or Canada as a whole.

In this respect, I part company from A BCer in Ontario's resistance to any special deals for Quebec.

And I part company from Bob Rae and the Two Accords encroaches on the continued application of the Charter of Rights to all within Quebec, and to the NDP-supported floor of 25% of seats in the House for Quebec, at the expense of Canadians living in the other provinces.

However, I am more in agreement with Bob Rae than with Dion on the need for a new approach to Quebec, including asymmetrical federalism far beyond what we have right now.

But that leaves us a wide field to debate.

What is certain is that our current set of policies with respect to the aspirations of the Quebecois are outdated, repellent to most Francophones in Quebec, and an obstacle to any revival of Liberal fortunes in that province.

If we don't change them, we will be ceding Quebec to the separatists and the separatist-leaning NDP under Mulcair.  And Harper has his hold on his Alberta and Saskatchewan base.

Our new leader and our Quebec policies:
It would be utter folly for us to select a new permanent leader of our party in 2013 without having this vigorous debate, and without the candidates for such leader post clearly debating amongst themselves these issues, so that Liberal Party members and Supporters know what they think before we vote for a new leader.


  1. "The LPC agreed to the motion in the House that the Québécois form a nation within Canada, as Ignatieff proposed, despite resistance to this concept by a big block of Liberals, starting with Dion."


    The exact opposite of this is true. Ignatieff proposed recognizing the territorial, legal jurisdiction of Quebec as nation, one with its own civic nationalism. Dion had long argued that Quebec is a sociological nation, i.e. the people of Quebec or those who identify strongly with its French culture and language form a nation. The resolution recognizing the Quebecois (a group of people) as nation within a united Canada is a reflection of Dion's views, not Ignatieff's.

    I don't think it needs to be said but I agree with Jeff 100% on this issue.

  2. PDO, you are right; I was going down a different track, but expressed it poorly: one where the nation concept meant more than pure symbolism, and actually had content. Harper bought the symbolism and his firewall tendencies provide some content; the NDP bought both and will dismember Canada to stay in power; the LPC is split: some prefer symbolism but others thought that the nation recognition meant far more. I thought Dion resisted devolution of powers to Quebec while recognizing the symbolic concept of the "Quebecois" being a nation. The whole process ended up being muddled beyond belief, and still is.

  3. I have a very definite sense that as was the case in the 1990 and 2006 leadership races, the issues outlined by you and Jeff are going to be very much in play during upcoming leadership contest.

  4. PDO, our country and our party would benefit if that debate - and detailed debates on other major policy issues - started sooner rather than later, and certainly well before the election of our next permanent leader, and before our next convention dealing with policies.

    If we do not have these debates, we will be asking our Members and our new Supporters to buy a pig in a poke when choosing a new leader and possible prime minister in 2013.

  5. It's over, nobody cares, nobody is listening, the LPC is now a museum display. Quebec is not looking for a new Liberal Party, Provincial Liberal parties are in decline across canada. Welcome to a NDP/CPC world.

  6. Anon, let's talk again in 2014. Things are gonna be different then, and the next government is not going to be a Harper Tory government.

    That's for sure. Scandals and sleaze and disrespect for voters and for our democracy will drag them down.

  7. Fine it won't be a cpc government, however it won't be a liberal government either. The liberals are in a death spiral and are losing ground with each election.


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