The Inside Agenda Blog

The Quebec Question, Part 1

by Steve Paikin Wednesday February 8, 2012

It's the number one verboten subject in Canadian politics: what to do about the fact that Quebec still hasn't signed the Constitution. 

Despite admonitions from almost everyone in Ottawa these days to leave the subject alone, the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance is tackling it head on. 

It held a day-long conference yesterday (Feb. 7, 2012), which, in itself is newsworthy. 

"I've been to 100 conferences on The Quebec Question," U of T chancellor David Peterson said, in opening the event. "But this is the first one in this century." 

Peterson is both a veteran of, and possibly a casualty of, the national unity wars. As Premier of Ontario, he was one of 11 Canadian first ministers to have signed the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord in 1987, which completed the work started by Pierre Trudeau in 1982, when he led Canada's constitutional repatriation effort. 

However, Quebec was then led by a separatist government and Premier Rene Levesque refused to sign on. Trudeau, whose Liberals had 74 out of 75 Quebec seats then, felt he could speak for Quebec, so he went ahead with repatriating the Constitution, in spite of Quebec's absence.

Meech Lake would have "fixed" that problem, since Quebec's new premier, Robert Bourassa, did sign that document.

However, the 1987 signing merely started a three-year "clock," in which all provinces had to ratify the agreement in their legislatures. Governments changed, Quebec invoked the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allowing them to bring in a French-only sign law, and with that, Meech started to unravel.

In the end, the clock ran out with Newfoundland and Manitoba refusing to ratify.

In 1990, Peterson made an 11th hour compromise that almost saved the agreement. He offered to give up several of Ontario's seats in The Senate, so Quebec's proportion wouldn't decline, when other provinces received more. It was seen as a bravura gesture at the time. But three months later, Peterson lost the ensuing provincial election to Bob Rae's NDP, and some thought his obsession with the national unity file, at the expense of other perhaps more mundane provincial issues, was partly responsible.

Former Ontario Premier David Peterson speaking, while former Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin looks on.

Why did Peterson feel so deeply about accommodating Quebec?

Perhaps it goes back to his teenage years. When he was 17, he spent a summer in rural Quebec near Rimouski as part of a Western University program. Anglophones learned French, Francophones learned English, and they both learned about each other's cultures too.

"My world was totally expanded and enriched," Peterson told a packed Faculty Association room at The Quebec Question conference.  "I became a more complete human being and Canadian. It goes to the core of the Canadian experience." 

Peterson joked, "I'd urge the government to pass a law saying every Anglophone had to marry a Francophone and vice versa. I never could implement it but it's a good idea and I commend it to Prime Minister Harper." 

That summertime experience gave Peterson "not a petty, nationalistic, tribal view of the country, but rather a large view of Canada and the world." 

When Peterson talks about the national unity battles of the 1980s, he still sounds and looks wounded by the experience. He's critical of his fellow Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau, "who was such a perfectionist when it came to Meech Lake. But he compromised in 1982 and made mistakes and those came back to haunt us regarding Meech Lake." 

Peterson refers to the "notwithstanding clause" of the Charter, which allows provinces to bypass Charter rights if they pass a special law doing so. That's what Quebec did with its "illegal" unilingual sign law. 

Peterson spent almost an entire weekend urging Premier Bourassa NOT to use the notwithstanding clause, "but Bourassa felt if he didn't use it, he'd have massive unrest. I told him it would turn the country off Meech Lake."

But Bourassa feared massive unrest because he had seen it before. He told Peterson, "You have never faced a situation where one of your best friends has been killed because of an insurrection." He was referring to the murder of former Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte by the FLQ. 

"I can't say if Bourassa was right or wrong," Peterson confesses. "But if we'd had a six-month clock instead of a three-year clock, Meech would be the law of the land." 

In the end, Meech failed because, despite a significant full court press to get him to put the accord to a vote in the Newfoundland House of Assembly, Premier Clyde Wells refused to do so. 

"Brian Mulroney was heroic," Peterson recalled. "But I blame Clyde Wells totally. His vanity tanked the agreement. I don't blame critics or oppositions. They're supposed to criticize and oppose. I blame the guy who held the pen in his hand at the table." 

Both Peterson and Mulroney went to Newfoundland to speak to the Assembly in hopes of changing the Wells' government's mind. Another conference speaker, former Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin, said in hindsight, that might have been a mistake. 

"I told Brian not to come," Tobin told me. "Newfoundlanders just don't like folks from Ottawa coming down to tell them what to do." 

"We thought we were appealing to Wells' vanity by coming," Peterson countered. 

"I know this," Tobin continued. "Wells didn't have the votes. I canvassed all the MHAs. So he refused to call the vote (to ratify Meech Lake) because he knew he'd lose." Tobin was a Liberal MP at the time, but left Ottawa in 1996 to succeed Wells and become premier.

Peterson calls the death of Meech Lake one of the seminal events in the history of the country. He believes it contributed to the death of the Progressive Conservative party, the rise of the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois, exacerbated regional differences, and eventually led to the 1995 referendum in which the federalist side only narrowly defeated the separatists in Quebec by 1%. 

"Everyone says everything is calm now, so why worry?" Peterson says. "But a country is never static. Separatism is dormant, but it's not dead and never will be.  This debate could flare up at any time. 

"Quebec is the cornerstone of our Canadian identity," the former premier concluded. "Give up on Quebec, and you give up on Canada." 

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The Agenda took a look at the Quebec situation last week on TVO.  If you missed the debate, you can see it here

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Next time, Part 2 of The Quebec Question, as we report on three widely divergent views of the issue: 

Former Quebec Premier Bernard Landry, who still dreams of an independent Quebec. 

Former Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin, who would like to let the issue lie fallow, but seems open to finding a way to accommodate Quebec and gets its signature once and for all on the Constitution. 

And former Harper chief of staff Ian Brodie, who says if we improve the economy and convince Canada's constitutional cottage industry to shut up, we'll avoid having to deal with this at all. 

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