Monday, September 11, 2006

The Elephant In The Room

Ignatieff is taking alot of heat for his willingness to re-open constitutional talks. I'm not sure I agree with Ignatieff's opinions on substance, but I do applaud the desire. Bob Rae and Stephane Dion both bring ample experience on constitutional matters, but their positions are essentially copouts. Dion cited Switzerland to argue you don't need full constitutional participation for a country to operate. Rae argued that it's just too hard to bring all the parties together and simply not worth the risk. What both men fail to acknowledge, working around the margins and avoiding the elephant in the room isn't a solution.

Avoidance allows a constant smoldering, that is equally as dangerous as attempting to deal with the problem, once and for all. Allowing Quebec to drift outside of the constitution guarantees perpetual uncertainty. The risks that surround re-opening constitutional talks are real, but the opposite view is equally problematic. I would view the next round of constitutional talks as the moment of truth, either there is some agreement or we accept the reality that sovereignty may be the best option- for both sides. The rest of Canada is held hostage, the federation operates on pins and needles, honest debate is stifled to appease and the whole thing is woefully dysfunctional. Bring the issue to a head, and come to a definitive conclusion, one way or the other.

I would argue that conditions have changed since the last round of talks. The language that is acceptable now is far more progressive than what was debated in Meech or Charlottetown. Distinct society is pretty much a given term, and the idea of "nation" gains increasing acceptance. The discussion has moved forward, maybe the constitution is ready to accept the rhetoric. The situation now has devolved into a federalist argument that is largely based on fears and checks to stifle independence, because there is no real policy to defend. The Bloc is now a permanent fixture in our Parliament and will remain as long as malaise is king. Canada is drifting apart as we sit idly by, why not be proactive and see if we can salvage the federation.

I'm prepared to accept the risk of opening up the constitution, primarily because I don't think we have a choice. Politicans can argue about practical measures to strenghten the federation that don't involve the constitution, but again I don't see at as a real substitute, merely plugging holes on a sinking boat. Of course it's "hard", of course it's "risky" and it could very well fail given the precedents. However, choosing to ignore just fuels the elements that want to divide Canada. I see the re-opening of talks as a moral necessity, not an option, if the goal is a healthy federation moving forward. To use a crude reference, it's time to shit or get off the pot. Do nothing, and you reach the dreaded condition anyways, it's just a more tortured and gentle slope.


Another take.


Ed King said...

Allowing Quebec to drift outside of the constitution guarantees perpetual uncertainty.

Quebec is not drifting outside the constitution; the Supreme Court confirmed that. This is a political, not constitutional, issue.

I would view the next round of constitutional talks as the moment of truth, either there is some agreement or we accept the reality that sovereignty may be the best option- for both sides.

That is a very dangerous and unnecessary position. Raising the stakes by saying that we have to make a deal - or else - only weakens the federal government's bargaining position vis-a-vis the provinces. In such a situation, the provinces can take the federal government to the cleaners because they know that it is desperate to make a deal at any cost. That's what happened with Meech and Charlottetown. Besides, the last 15 years have shown that amendments are anything but urgent: Quebeckers's attachment to Canada is as strong as ever, and the country has prospered.

Ed King said...

or we accept the reality that sovereignty may be the best option- for both sides.

It is for Quebeckers, as with the citizens of other provinces, to decide wether or not they stay in Canada. The federal government cannot simply decide to deny Quebeckers their Canadian citizenship because it cannot come to an agreement with the provincial government. If the current situation is as dire and unsustainable as you claim it is, why is there no consistent majority support for separatism in ANY province? It seems to me that Canadians are at least grudgingly satisfied with the status quo, and in some cases quite content with ther constitution as it is now.

Gavin Neil said...

Crap, I just lost a comment. Short verison:

1) We shouldn't fear constitutional change, but at the same time should we be unearthing those skeletons when there are plenty of ways to reinvigorate our democracy without exposing ourselves to this kind of danger?

2) sweet words will not make quebeckers happy - if Canada is a great contry with a vision they believe in, they will stay no matter what, and if it is not, they will leave even if our constitution promises wine and cheese for every french speaker. We should be working to build a Canada that Canadians - including Quebecois - love and are proud of.

Anonymous said...

Say whatever, but I for one am tired of the constant threat of separists and the constant blackmail that goes with it, and the constant cost to the have provinces to help keep them happy enough to stay.

Time to deal with it.

Loraine Lamontagne said...

Anonyous: Seeing that the PQ promises to hold a referendum as soon as possible, maybe Charest should promise to hold ghis own, with a clearly stated question: "Do you want Quebec to become a country separate and outside of the Canadian federation - yes or no". Maybe the federalists (and I use the term very losely where Charest is concerned) should take control of the issue!

Steve V said...

"This is a political, not constitutional, issue."

Then why do we constantly debate Quebec's absence?

Leonid said...

Re: the elephant in the room. I think Dion's point was precisely that the constitution is not an "elephant in the room" - not because he doesn't see it, he's not a constitutional expert for nothing - but because its importance has simply been exagerated by people, from Mulroney to Bouchard to Harper, trying to gain political capital by telling Quebecers they have been victimised by the evil Trudeau.

Ed King said...


the Supreme Court said that the constitution applies to all provinces. In legal and constitutional terms, Quebec is as much a member of the federation as Ontario or Saskatchewan.

The problem is a political one. Many Quebeckers feel that the constitution is illegitimate because it was patriated without the Levesque government's approval, although Quebec's consent was not necessary to make the new constitution legally valid. But clearly it does not bother Quebeckers enough for them to leave the federation.

I completely agree with Leonid. The significance of Levesque's failure to reach an agreement with Trudeau has been greatly exaggerated. There is no urgent constitutional or political need to amend the constitution. To do so now, especially in an atmosphere of do-or-die desperation, would create more problems than it would solve.

Steve V said...

I don't dispute the "exaggeration", but that really is irrelevant to the perception. We can either sit around and wait for the next referendum, or we can try to heal the wounds on our own terms, when seperatist support is relatively low. I think people forget just how close we came to a majority in the last referendum, as well as the age breakdowns.

SouthernOntarioan said...

Here's a crazy idea.. why don't we actually follow the constitution that we currently have instead of worrying about changing it?

A lot of the problems involving Quebec could/might be solved if we followed the constitution. In the constitution things like health care, education, highways and such are provincial responsibilities.

If the federal government would stop trying to interfere in areas of provincial responsibility then Quebecers would have their own 'nation' of a sorts to take care of. The problem is that would require our politicians to stop making grandiose promises regarding health care which they cannot fulfill.

I don't know for sure of course, I'm not an expert. But if it seems silly that we have a constitution that no one really obeys anyways. Right?

Lept said...

An interesting highlight from the coverage in 'Le Devoir'.
Dion's muting of himself:
«Il ne faut pas dire que ce sont des séparatistes, a lancé M. Dion. Ce sont nos amis [nos frères ou nos collègues], qu'il faut convaincre, et la meilleure façon de les convaincre, c'était d'abord de clarifier le débat. Et si cela a heurté beaucoup de gens, il fallait que je le fasse»
Chrétiens chief lacky? The architect of the B plan?

The rhetoric IS changing!

A BCer in Toronto said...

I'm prepared to accept the risk of opening up the constitution, primarily because I don't think we have a choice.

You had a choice, sir. You could have said no!

But John Turner callbacks aside, I could smear myself in honey and tie myself to a stake over an anthill. It would be bold, but not particularly smart. Declining to reopen the constitution quagmire isn't a copout, it's a smart decision by Dion and Rae based on many, many years of direct experience on this issue in federal and provincial government, on the frontlines.

Is the average Quebecer loosing any sleep over the constitution? Show me they are and I may change my mind. Otherwise, let's focus on the things that are on the minds of average Quebecers, and average Canadians, and leave the constitutional debates for poly sci seminars.

Ed King said...


The BNA act allows the federal government to cancel any bill passed by provincial legislatures. Is this what you are suggesting we go back to?

This idea that the federal government is supposed to stay out of areas of provincial responsibility is a myth and is not consistent with the constitution. The BNA act divides legislative responsibilities. The act allows the federal government to spend in areas of provincial responsibilities. The first ever premiers' confenrence, held in 1878, was convened for the purpose of getting the federal government to spend more in areas of provincial responsiblity.