Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Harper Shrewd?

It’s pretty debatable, whether or not the Harper government benefits from floating the idea of re-opening the Constitution. On the one hand, the Conservatives appeal to Quebecers, send another signal of openness. However, there are so many unknowns, when you start to walk down this path, that any discussion is rife with potential pitfalls, that could cause a backlash.

It’s all very vague now, but you have to wonder if that will be the case in an election campaign:
The Harper government is telling Quebec that if the Conservatives win a majority in the next election, they will look to reopen the Constitution and give more meaning to their recognition of Quebeckers as a nation.

The recognition of the Quebec nation within Canada allows us to think that we can put some meat around it, and that a majority government is more able to do a number of things, while being respectful of all of the provinces,” Mr. Blackburn said in an interview.
“When you're a minority, you never know what can happen, so it's not obvious to do that type of thing in the actual context,” Mr. Blackburn said on the topic of constitutional change.

The trick for the Conservatives, dangle the carrot, without getting into the details, or firm promises. The ability to do that is largely dependent on the Liberal reaction. Obviously, there is a way to use the majority scenario against the Conservatives in parts of English Canada, but the really intriguing part- how do the Liberals react in Quebec?

I’m of the mindset that Harper does get mileage by floating this idea in Quebec, if the Liberals respond with the same outdated language and views of federalism. As a matter of fact, the Liberals will be largely irrelevant in any discussion if the philosophy isn’t “modernized”. The hill is steeper, when you consider that Dion embodies the old ways, or at least that is the perception in Quebec. If there is going to be a discussion of federalism in the next election, the Liberals have to bring some new concepts to the table, otherwise Harper benefits, merely by suggestion, rather than concrete measures.

Last year, there was a highly touted book released, Reconquering Canada: A New Project for the Quebec Nation, written by a group of Quebec federalists. While there was a mention of the book on the Liberal website, there really wasn’t much discussion coming from our leadership about the ideas. I guess the effectiveness of Harper’s strategy may well be contingent on the Liberal response, and in some ways it could jumpstart adaptation coming from the Liberal ranks. Dion could possibly move past “Mr. Clarity Act”, at least enough to join the conversation within Quebec.

The trouble for the Liberals here, if they make a big deal out of Harper’s suggestions in English Canada, use fear of the unknown to hurt the Conservatives, it could further marginalize them in Quebec. Harper walks a tightrope by floating the Constitution, but he also lays a few traps for the Liberals, and hopefully people react accordingly. If the Liberals are passive, the exercise will only reaffirm their irrelevance in Quebec, allow Harper a free path as the only federalist option. If the Liberals are progressive, it could provide opportunity.


Anonymous said...

the Liberals have to bring some new concepts to the table.

truer words have not been spoken.

Gayle said...

Didn't we end up on the brink of a constitutional crisis last time we started negotiating constitutiona reforms?

I am certainly no expert on Quebec politics, but it seems to me there are a lot of people in Quebec who would like to avoid a repeat.

bigcitylib said...

And, Gayle, I wager alot of them are on Montreal Island.

Sorry, I don't see this marginalizing the Libs anymore than they are currently in Quebec. Your really want to see them lose the Anglophone vote as well?

Anonymous said...

It is becoming apparent that Harper is now relying more on Blackburn as his Quebec Lieutenant, more so than Cannon and Verner.

Blackburn seems to get a lot of questions from the Bloc at Question Period, particularly on Labour issues and training.

40 seats are a stretch for the Cons. But we know one thing. Harper can walk around in the Chicoutimi region quite comfortably, while Dion is probably hated there more than Patrick Roy and his son.

Anonymous said...

I also am no expert on Quebec politics, or Constitutional changes.

However, my feelings are that if the changes the Tories are talking about could be applicable to all provinces, with some extra stuff to help Quebec protect it's language and culture, I am ok with the discussion. I would be comfortable somehwere between where we are now and Meech, but on the continuum between here and there (Meech being 100), I would say somewhere around 50-60 is ok.

No, from a strategic standpoint, this is excellent for all the reasons you say Steve. Dion will either get a lot of positive traction in Quebec from this, or he will lose even more than he has. I think Harper can delay any real negative response until such time as an actual Constitutional amendment is proposed.

I may be wrong there, but without details, it is hard to get really up in arms against this.

Jeff said...

Shrewd? No. The problem with raising expectations is that at some point you have to meet them. Not only can Harper not do that without losing unacceptable amounts if support elsewhere in the country, but the BQ/PQ will keep moving the goalposts, declare the inevitable failure a betrayal of Quebecers, and use it to stoke separatist sympathies.

Harper is hoping he can fool everyone long enough to get his majority. I don't think it will work.

Gayle said...

"Sorry, I don't see this marginalizing the Libs anymore than they are currently in Quebec. Your really want to see them lose the Anglophone vote as well?"


Was this directed at me? I ask because I agree with you.

bigcitylib said...

No. Sorry. Directed at anyone suggesting we reopen the constitution. I would support some kind of transfer of powers the way I think JC did with labor force retraining (I think, memories a bit iffy). I'd support Libs saying we'll do x, y, and z without opening constitution, then offer to all provinces.

But the constitution? Kill me now.

Yvan St-Pierre said...

As far as I'm concerned, I couldn't be happier if Mr Dion decided to take his chances with some novel and proactive national unity perspective.

The crux of the matter is recognizing that the language question will not go away magically, and that instead of letting a minority language collapse into a minor concern, we should all thrive to bridge the linguistic divide, and it is not enough to do it as individuals; we need specific institutions for that.

The challenge should be for those who refuse special status to Québec or asymetrical federalism to come up with a valid alternative, which the status quo is not, because the status quo is just the ongoing deepening of the chasm between the 2 linguistic communities.

That's just my 2-cents obviously.

bigcitylib said...

The ongoing deepening chasm? I haven't heard nonsense like that in nearly 20 years.

What chasm? This all dropped off the radar screen until Iggy brought it up in 2006, and frankly its about the bottom of everyone's agenda.

You want to see where this is going, think about what could have transpired at the Lib convention, where the Aborigonal dontingent had already decided that they wanted there concerns addressed too.

And then Albertans will be in there with the triple E Senate. And THEN you'll see a chasm.

Steve V said...

"Sorry, I don't see this marginalizing the Libs anymore than they are currently in Quebec."

Oh sorry, I thought the idea was to find a way out of being marginalized in Quebec, unless of course Liberals are fine with no support amongst francophones. I'm trying to think big picture, we need a strategy to win back support.

Anthony said...

it wasnt off the radar here bcl

I know my views are somewhat biased in this argument, but I think this is exactly what was expected of Harper.

It will help the "rally to the federalist vote" out in the regions. Mulroney won so many Quebec seats in the 80s pandering to separatists. At least Harper is saying we want openness but we want a united Canada first.

Dion doesnt really have a choice here. If he wants to save anything outside the anglophone ridings in Montreal, he needs to come out in favor of something of this nature. If he wants to run a fear campaign against eh boogeyman constitution, he may yet gain more seats outside the province.

"We only really need constitutional change every generation, once every 25 years"

who said that? Pierre Trudeau, attacking the Meech Lake Accord. When was the last time the constitution was amended? 26 years ago.

bigcitylib said...

"If he wants to run a fear campaign against eh boogeyman constitution, he may yet gain more seats outside the province."

Antonio, that's a trade that works for me, as there are more seats outside the province than in.

Yvan St-Pierre said...

Yes, Big City Lib, you just demonstrate my point. What you describe is a completely different world than mine. You think it puts you and me on any sort of cooperative path?

Actually, your concept of nonsense is exactly the problem. What is on the front-burner in Québec is nonsense to you, and what you say about it is nonsense to me. It could help though if we read the same papers, or at least if the papers we read did not go in systematically diverging views on the whole matter of national unity.

At any rate, I was not suggesting anything about re-opening the constitution. I was just suggesting we re-activate some hope in francophone Québec that the RoC could be more open to what's behind our nonsense. But if I get your drift, why care for 1 Canadian in 5 anyway? Not too surprising then that this is off your radar, is it?

bigcitylib said...


As I say, if "rebalancing" federalism involves staying away from the Constitution, then that's fine. And I think JC's term provided a model for that.

Asymmetrical federalism. Forget it. (Also, check out the Globe comments on this story, which are running about 20 against the idea).

Lord Kitchener's Own said...

Isn't this transparently false advertising from the Tories? Yeah, they're just gonna open the constitution and change it. They'll just give Quebec a constitutional veto. And participation in selecting Supreme Court judges. What could possibly stop them? Everyone knows that a government in Ottawa with a majority in the House has the unfettered ability to unilaterally change the constitution.

I'm beginning to think we've had minorities for so long that people have forgotten that majority governments have limits on their powers to.

I view any "promise" from Harper and his government to do ANYTHING with regard to the Constitution about the same way I'd view a promise from the Tories to amend the laws of gravity.

They've skipped over making promises they won't keep, to making promises they don't even have the power to keep.

The people of Quebec are not stupid. And I don't think they'll appreciate being treated as though they were. If you're going to try to buy their votes, buy them with something that is within your authority to actually deliver. Don't try to bribe them with promises of something far beyond your power to give.

ottlib said...

Another Conservative Prime Minister wants to open up the Constitution to satisfy the wants and desires of Quebec Nationalists and Separatists.

That is all the Liberals have to say. It would cause Canadians in every province and territory to recoil in horror.

Yvan St-Pierre said...


Are you actually suggesting as a model these "golden" 20 years during which your linguistic community has apparently gone on believing that the other linguistic community was happy with the current arrangement? I sure don't see that as a model of anything but of the ongoing slow drift apart of the two solitudes, I'm afraid.

This said, I'm all for building on compromise, but whatever idea we come up with is always brushed aside without no counter-proposals ever. Any suggestion to break the gridlock? Or am I still just talking nonsense?

Anonymous said...

This is bogus. The Conservatives DID NOT say they would look at reopening the constitution. A reporter INFERRED this to try to get a headline.

I don't care what political party we support arn't we all getting a bit sick of the media ad libbing and inventing the news?

bigcitylib said...

Nonsense it is, I am afraid.

And I think the solitudes were a little further apart when we were stomping on flags and Western Reformers were plotting out just how a Quebec invasion would work. Perhaps you're too young to remember that stuff.

And again, check out the Globe comments on this story. Right now they're up to 50/1 against. Way more votes in opposing it. Probably, according to Macleans Rob Silver, more than 20% in Quebec too.

Anonymous said...

What would it have taken for Harper to have been able to construct his "firewall" between Alberta and the rest of the country?

It would have taken opening up the constitution, that's what.

So he dresses up the idea of constitutional reform in order to accommodate Quebec. Then once it's opened up he can jump start the process of converting confederation to a balkanized crypto-republic with firewalls between all the provinces and the federal government.

This isn't about Quebec. Its about fundamentally altering the national contract for all of us.

Steve V said...

" but whatever idea we come up with is always brushed aside without no counter-proposals ever"

And, I think that is why the Liberals have lost francophones, it's old rhetoric, there is never anything that looks or smells different, while Quebec society leaves us in their wake. I think what people fail to see, and I say this as big Trudeau fan, things progress, things change, it's fluid, what was unheard of then, is almost accepted now.

The Liberals don't need to re-open the constitution, but we sure as hell need a new perspective.

Steve V said...

Dana makes an excellent point about motivations. Harper isn't sincere, he doesn't really care about Quebecers or their aspirations, this is about something else.

Gayle said...


James Curran and I were having hte same discussion over at BCL's blog. He came up with a nice quote:

“Whether Canada ends up as one national government or two national governments or several national governments, or some other kind of arrangement is, quite frankly, secondary in my opinion… And whether Canada ends up with one national government or two governments or ten governments, the Canadian people will require less government no matter what the constitutional status or arrangement of any future country may be.” (Speech to the Colin Brown Memorial Dinner, National Citizens Coalition, 1994)

Yvan St-Pierre said...


I am a bit older than you think, but I did not believe then that flag stompers and Reform war-mongers were representative of english-speaking Canada. It's all news to me that I should have.

Again, we don't see nonsense in the same way, obviously. And by the way, I read the Globe way more than enough. Do you read La Presse at all, or God forbid, Le Devoir, some times? Or is this already part of another country than yours?

Anonymous said...

Blackburn was an MP in Muloney's government when he went through this before amd they ended up with 2 seats

Loraine Lamontagne said...

And now Blackburn is backtracking. - According to La Presse,'il a tempéré ses propos' the fruit, he says, is not ripe. As competent as in his Mulroney days.

Gayle said...

"This said, I'm all for building on compromise, but whatever idea we come up with is always brushed aside without no counter-proposals ever. Any suggestion to break the gridlock? Or am I still just talking nonsense?"

Yvan, I admit I am not up to speed, but I would love to be and I would love for our country to find a solution. The only real experiential information i have comes from a friend who did his Masters and then a law degree at the University of Montreal. Even though he is fluently bilingual and openly supported Meech, he was always typecast as the "Albertan" in academic circles. His isolation carried into the non-academic world.

I do not mean to use this one experience as an example of Quebec as a whole, but he certainly left that province with the belief that Quebec is not interested in the rest of Canada, but expects the rest of Canada to be interested in Quebec. I live in Alberta and the "let Quebec go" sentiment is pretty rampant here. I do not like it, I do not share it, and frankly if Quebec separated I would probably try to immigrate there (though I suppose I would have to brush up on my language skills...).

Can you tell me what you suggest? How do we breach this gap?

Anonymous said...

Reopening the constitution is dangerous, period. While I agree with the idea that this was likely designed to try to hurt the Liberals further in Quebec, I don’t think it’s nearly a clever a trap as you do. The Liberal message to this should be quite simple. Warn against its dangers, particularly outside Quebec, while emphasizing that Harper needs to be responsible and say exactly what he means by this. Talk about how, by not giving details, he’s trying to fool Quebeckers into voting for him on a vague promise, and he needs to be honest and not falsely raise expectations. Remember that Harper’s track record in this regard is not good – when he finally gave some details, his proposals on limiting the federal spending power were widely condemned in Quebec last fall as not going nearly far enough, after he’d raised hopes that he would deliver on this.

While it would be great if we lived in a mature country where constitutional discussions did not lead to questioning the very worth of its existence, the fact is we don’t. If the country does go into discussions, the chances of success are miniscule, while the risks are very high. I would argue that the provincial premiers today would be far less inclined to make special concessions to Quebec than at Meech and Charlottetown and the horse-trading to get an agreement would be near impossible to settle with so many conflicting demands and viewpoints. Remember, while Harper may like to think that he’s all powerful, changes of this nature would require the agreements of all 10 provinces. Furthermore, even if by some miracle the premiers did manage to come to an agreement, some experts have argued that there is a case that Charlottetown established a constitutional convention where any major changes would require referendums in all provinces. Even if it were decided there was no convention, no province would take the political risk of not having one. What are the chances that the populations of all 10 provinces would agree to recognizing Quebec as a nation, and giving them the power befitting such status? Again, remember that Charlottetown already had the threat of referendum hanging over the idea of failure, and it didn’t scare people into agreeing to it then. It’s even less likely now with support for sovereignty at a low and the Bloc and PQ doing badly electorally. Though it’s a great way to put some wind in their sails.

Steve V said...

"I don’t think it’s nearly a clever a trap as you do."

Did you notice the question mark in the title. And, I think you outline a possible Liberal response.

Here's one simple question on the constitution. Do we just leave Quebec outside and forget about the question for eternity, or do we eventually address the issue? Seems like the overriding opinion is just to ignore it all together.

Jeff said...

Here's one simple question on the constitution. Do we just leave Quebec outside and forget about the question for eternity, or do we eventually address the issue?

Not all of Quebec is of one mind on this issue, and the constitution is not the only answer. We shouldn't let Harper, and the BQ, frame the debate.

Anonymous said...

Here's one simple question on the constitution. Do we just leave Quebec outside and forget about the question for eternity, or do we eventually address the issue? Seems like the overriding opinion is just to ignore it all together.

Yep, and this is why Ignatieff lost the leadership race unfortunately. The Liberals that supported him primarily agreed with option number 2 a.k.a "eventually address the issue."

The recent debate in Quebec over "reasonable accommodation" for immigrants is only a symptom of a growing disgusting problem that is rooted in the fact that Quebec has not signed almost 25 years later. What I’m worried about is the Francophone’s will feel so threatened about their dying “culture” that they will revert to the ugly kind of ethnic nationalism that has taken hold in the Netherlands and across Europe. Part of the reason why I think the ADQ did so well.

Someone talked about the fact the Bloc would move the goal posts if we entered into negotiations and got them to sign on.

I say, the LPC needs to create new goalposts and have confidence in a leader that can sell it directly to the people of Quebec. It should never be a “either/or option”

Anonymous said...

"We shouldn't let Harper, and the BQ, frame the debate."

Are you suggesting Dion and Kennedy do a pre-emptive strike? I believe it can be done. Start by attacking both the Taylor-Bouchard Commission and the Castonguay Commission. Both are attempts by Charest in flexing provincial muscles on reasonable accomodation and the Canada Health Act. Make these key issues when the Grits tackle the NDP head on in the Westmount by-election.

Not sure that Garneau can be scripted to defend a stronger federal role in overriding provincial autonomy. But the Grits may have no option, particularly when Layton will use Mulcair's profile to present a left-wing Bourassa-lite NDP alternative.

Steve V said...

"Yep, and this is why Ignatieff lost the leadership race unfortunately."

That is about the last reason Iggy lost the race. Most people I talked to, who didn't support him, cited the torture question and Iraq.

bigcitylib said...


Nope. I watch Ricardo on the cooking network and that's it. You write:

"I am a bit older than you think, but I did not believe then that flag stompers and Reform war-mongers were representative of english-speaking Canada. It's all news to me that I should have."

They were not representatives, but they were the extreme anifestation of feelings that were not at all uncommon in an otherwise fairly moderate population. Had Quebec gone it could have got very ugly very quickly (Anglo Montreal secedes from Quebec, Aborigonal North secedes from Quebec, takes down a few more powerlines). You would have got a ROC willing to take a very hard line, even if it involved some economic sacrifice.

Thank god the Tories are backpedeling like crazy on this. I guess that's why they only let Harper speak.

RuralSandi said...

C'mon this was a Harper tactic pure and simple. What is said in Quebec is often different than what is said elsewhere.

Look at the Flaherty/McGuinty issue - Harper praised McGuinty but didn't stop Flaherty from his rantings.

Now, hint/hint/hint - if you give us a "majority" kiddies we might do something nice for you - let Blackburn throw out the "hint/hint" and pretend it isn't what you meant.

It's got Harper written all over it - vote buying.

liberazzi said...

The Conservatives have no shame, playing political games like this at the potential expense of the entire country. This is not something to mess around with simply for the purpose of trolling for votes in Quebec. Disgraceful!

The Liberal Party stands for strong federalism and a strong central government and should hold true to its roots. We are a united country, not a collection of provinces. This should give Dion the opportunity to show us what he is made of, it may be his only chance. If he can't win the debate with Harper on this one, then he has no hope.

Yvan St-Pierre said...

"Can you tell me what you suggest? How do we breach this gap?"

Gayle, if you happen to come back to this thread,

I don't think there is any easy answer to what you are asking. But we either believe that we have something to gain from having the french and english sides of this country working together (obviously this goes for any darn division you can think of, but it's not as if we needed each other to reproduce or to make a buck), or we don't. I surmise that the "the hell with'em, they're just whining to get some more priviledges" line is unlikely to be coming from the folks who think that it's worth the trouble. I'd also venture to think that a few years of respectful indifference could go a longer way then the constant politicization of the issue, for both communities to start getting a better perspective on this. But what I believe are growing and reciprocal mistrust and misunderstandings between us can hardly foster that respect.

It's interesting that in your comment you give an instance of someone who was "typecast" as an Albertan while in Québec, and I'm not at all surprised that he felt that way. Same goes for a bunch of people that I know who've had bad experiences outside Québec. On the other hand, good experiences can also happen, and it is probably at least in part because the one year I went to UWO, and shared a house with some of "your kind" in London, Ontario (just prior to the 1995 referendum actually), because that year wasn't so excruciating after all, that I'm still bothering having the kind of discussion that we are having now. During that time, I have developed a perception of my fellow Canadians of the other tongue in which the very obvious hostility (bars actually had signs telling me how much of a bad Canadian I was to have been born in a province that elected Jacques Parizeau as Premier) was really nothing but a thin veneer of frustration borne out of fear and misunderstanding. In the same way as your own caveat, I have to admit that this was the result of only a few dozens anecdotal conversations, so that maybe BCL is still right, and that average Canadians outside Québec really hate us when we don't want to live by their very own Canadian dream, yet this has not been my personal experience at all at the time.

To come back to your question, I don't think that what I called in my very first comment here a "novel and proactive" way to deal with this issue, and hopefully bridge the language gap, has as much to do with eventual results - constitutional or otherwise - than with process. The idea should be the rebuild mutual respect, not play the negociation game all the time. On this, I do think that BCL is absolutely right: Québec is not monolithic about the constitutional question, but this should make it even more obvious I think, that there is a tremendous opportunity, now that Québec sovereignty is on the back burner, for respectful dialogue. Yet there is a problem when the choice you guys have to understand Québec is Lysiane Gagnon, Chantal Hébert and... Ricardo on the Food Network.

If I may make a parallel, I don't support proportional representation, personally, but I do think that considerations of process here, in all of Ontario, BC and Québec regarding PR, have allowed, however imperfectly, some democratic debate beyond party lines, and this is what should be proposed by Liberals, I think, that is some open-ended non-partisan process for better translating each side's perception of the current relationship, and of where it could be profitable for all of us to take it. I assume BCL and others will remind us of the Spicer commission and how useless and divisive such a process can be, yet assuming we couldn't do better than that would just mean there is no hope for anything but a slow drift apart. Could be for the best, I suppose, but calling it nonsense will not prevent it from happenning, I'm afraid.

I agree with much of what is written here in terms of the danger of raising expectations, but I argue that there is just as much danger in closing doors shut. Sorry for the long response, by the way.

Gayle said...

yvan - I want you to know I have read your response, and it gives me a lot to think about.

I am crazy busy at the moment so do not have time to formulate the response your post deserves. I wanted you to know I read it though and I thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Yvan St-Pierre said...

Thanks Gayle for your open mind. I think it's the most important thing we should nurture on all sides of all debates anyway. So good luck with whatever keeps you busy.