It has been called ‘The Night of the Long Knives’ by its critics, and considered a necessary evil by its supporters. On a November night in 1981, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, and nine premiers gave up on Quebec and signed a constitutional deal that would eventually become the Constitution Act, 1982.
The Prime Minister and the premiers had their reasons for this. Negotiations for a new constitution were stalling. The Gang of Eight had plans to walk out of the discussions unless their demands – which Trudeau opposed – were met, Quebec Premier René Lévesque was demanding more power over funding and programs for Quebec, and the Prime Minister was threating to unilaterally patriate the constitution without provincial support. Trudeau’s goal was to bring home the constitution and implement his Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The provinces all wanted concessions, which were getting in his way.
On that November night, Trudeau’s Minister of Justice, Jean Chrétien, made an informal compromise with the provinces after Lévesque had left the for his hotel: a notwithstanding clause would be added to the constitution, allowing provinces to override some parts of the Charter. In addition, the clause allowing provinces to opt-out of federal sharing programs with compensation, supported by Trudeau and Lévesque, would be dropped. A deal was signed in the morning.
Predictably, Lévesque was furious and did not sign on to the final constitution deal. In both theory and practice, it never really mattered that he didn’t. Quebec is still a part of Canada and is bound by its supreme law – those who say Quebec is separate or excluded from the Constitution because it was never signed are spewing complete nonsense. The issue over Quebec not being a signatory is completely symbolic.
And this symbolism has created many political problems. The failed attempts to bring Quebec into the Constitution with The Meech Lake Accord in 1987 and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992 used up a large amount of political capital and energy, resulting in the Progressive Conservative downfall in the 1993 federal election (voters tired of the constitutional debacle moved to the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party) and the victory of the Parti Québécois in the 1994 Quebec Election. The unsatisfactory negotiations also led to an uncomfortably close call in the 1995 Quebec referendum.
Since 1992, no one has seriously entertained the idea of reopening the constitution. The reasoning for this is the assumption that any constitutional issue, even unrelated to Quebec’s place in the federation, would not succeed until the Quebec Problem had been solved. It has become a political landmine – touch it and you’re dead.
That is, until now. The Liberal Party of Quebec’s new leader, Philippe Couillard, has signalled his intention to get Quebec to sign the darn document by Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. He acknowledged the need for his party to “discuss this question of identity or the specific nature of Quebec and then have conversations with the other governments of Canada on how this could be approached,” though it is sure many in his party will be skeptical of Couillard’s initiative.
Several problems lay in Couillard’s way.
As previously mentioned, politicians have been strategic in avoiding constitutional changes. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been especially careful, doing everything in his power to avoid even the mention of it. For example, his Senate Reform Act, Bill C-7, was created in such a way that would allow Senators to be constitutionally elected without needing to change the Constitution itself (in essence, the PM would still have the final say on senatorial appointments, but base his choice on the elections). This type of loophole won’t work with Couillard’s plan.
Given past experiences, Harper would be especially hesitant in opening the Constitution without a guarantee that Quebec would sign it. In essence, Couillard would need to form a strong majority and avoid tying any strings to the deal. If Couillard tied strings to the agreement, it would require participation from the other provinces in order to amend the Constitution to Quebec’s liking, severely complicating the matter.
Because of Harper’s reservations, Couillard’s biggest obstacle would indeed be to convince the federal government to go ahead with his plans. Already Christian Paradis, Harper’s Quebec lieutenant, has rejected the idea of reopening the Constitution, stating that jobs and the economy is the real priority.
Another issue is the control of his message. Other parties will use this issue against him from now until the next election, and already have. The PQ has already stated that Couillard is “disqualified” from being Premier because of his stance, and François Legault of the CAQ – echoing the federal government – has said that no one cares about the Constitution, the priority should be the economy. Couillard needs to control the dialogue on this issue and explain to Quebeckers that this is merely a symbolic issue that won’t really affect the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada. He will also have to convince skeptics in his party why it’s worth spending so much political capital on a symbolic issue when there are other, likely more important, issues to address first. As we have seen with the 2012 tuition strikes in Quebec, the Liberals have struggled many times in setting the narrative.
To legitimize his idea, the Liberal Party will ideally have to make it one of its main platform issues. Based on the current climate of Quebec politics, the Liberals would have a much easier time winning the next election on PQ incompetence in the economy and social issues than on a staunch federalist platform. Again, a control of the dialogue may avert this disaster.
Despite all the problems, it’s about time Quebec signed the Constitution.
Quebeckers in the early 90s were tired of the constitutional discussion, and clearly expressed their opposition to it at the ballot box. Yet two decades have passed and a new generation of leaders have entered the political discussion. The issue is new again and there may be a rejuvenated interest in finally getting the deed done. Aside from recent and unnecessary agitation by the minority PQ government of Pauline Marois, tensions between federalists and separatists are fairly low at this time. Recent polls suggest that there is some interest in this issue finally getting resolved. For one, support for separation has fallen to a measly 32% according to CROP – though other polls offer a slightly higher number. With less people looking towards independence, people may we willing to accept signing the Constitution and moving on from the issue for good. Another slightly older poll shows that over eighty percent of Quebeckers like the Constitution, and 69% think Quebec’s signature should be added to it.
As Couillard himself has stated, signing the Constitution would be a great symbol of Canadian unity after 150 years of cooperation between the two founding nations. Fixing this thirty year old grievance would be a good step in restoring relations between Canada and those in Quebec who feel they were betrayed on that faithful night in November 1981. Too much time has been wasted debating this issue. Solving it once and for all would allow us to tackle bigger issues in our federation.