Dr. Dawg

Clarity on Quebec

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Quebec flag.jpg

I’ve never supported the Clarity Act, and I spoke against it when it was still a Bill. I remain a supporter of self-determination for Quebec, but heck, these days I even have Lorne Gunter in my corner, sort of. And who was it who conferred “nationhood” status, if not upon Quebec, at least upon the Québécois?

I don’t like the Clarity Act any more than I would approve of a unilateral declaration of independence from the Quebec government. In each case, one party to what is in fact a negotiation is imposing its will upon the other.

Negotiation? Certainly. That’s what has been going on in slo-mo since the Parti québécois came to power in 1976. Quebec wants a different relationship from that of provincial status within Canada as a whole.

What kind of relationship? That’s the nub, and it doesn’t break easily into sound-bites. Much of the debate is semantic—“sovereignty-association,” “separatism,” even “self-determination,” can become fairly empty phrases, and the target of equally empty criticism.

Consider another article by the conservative Lorne Gunter. There are only two positions available, he suggests: the status quo or separatism.

According to Gunter, Jack Layton is a Quebec “nationalist hardliner”—a ludicrous claim, but Gunter does tend to think in black and white. As proof, he offers Layton’s support for the extension of Bill 101 (the Quebec language law) into federal workplaces in Quebec; his promise to accept Quebec’s “national character” (surely not a long skip and a jump from Harper’s recognition of québécois nationhood), and his support for giving federal money to Quebec to run its own social programs if Quebec wants—something that is entirely constitutional and to some extent is already in place, and which, in any case, is hardly a move towards separation.

Gunter also considers it separatist for Layton to advocate re-opening constitutional negotiations to come to a final arrangement with Quebec that would secure Quebec’s signature on the Canadian Constitution. But again, this surely the opposite of a separatist objective.

Quebec nationalism is not necessarily separatist. The move to the NDP during the last election is not proof, pace Gunter, that Layton is a “closet separatist,” but rather an indication that the Québécois are a pragmatic bunch, sick of the logjam, and want some permanent solution, preferably within Confederation.

The NDP is really arguing for the concept of “asymmetrical federalism”: one country in which it is recognized that Quebec is not a province like the others, but a nation, requiring different—distinct, if you will—constitutional arrangements from those of, say, Prince Edward Island.

That’s where the public debate should be focused, but it will be all uphill to make it so. As Meech Lake and Charlottetown indicated, the federal-provincial paradigm is hard to break. The only solution presented so far—twice—has been to re-balance federalism so that all of the provinces are offered the same devolution of powers as Quebec. Needless to say, conservative opponents of strong federal government are on board with that, but deeply opposed to a bilateral agreement with Quebec alone.

Layton has an intrinsically hostile media to deal with, as well as anti-Quebec sentiment in the rest of Canada (particularly the West). His own caucus, I suspect, is hardly united on this matter. Furthermore, the “50%+1” idea may play well in quarters where it is intended to do so, but serious objections to it can legitimately be raised. What is needed is a comprehensive plan, easy enough even for the media to grasp, not bits here and pieces there.

Recent hip surgery or no, Layton will have to step lively—and carefully—as he ventures into the constitutional minefield. But for confronting a fundamental issue that others have ducked for years, he deserves considerable kudos. I, for one, wish him well in his attempt to move the negotiations along.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on June 1, 2011 1:42 PM.

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