For almost the last year and a half Canadians have, quite understandably, been preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic. Very little in our day-to-day lives has not been touched by the reality of the virus. But it is when we are at our most vulnerable that we must be most vigilant.
When our guard is down, when our focus is channeled on issues of survival and well-being, that is the time when those in authority may well look for opportunities to increase their power and move forward aspects of their agenda in a manner they might otherwise have found more challenging. Even Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has opined that the COVID-19 pandemic, as serious as it is, has also provided “opportunities”.
But whatever advantage the federal government, or for that matter most provincial governments, have taken to advance their political agendas during this pandemic (and there are some serious issues here), they pale in relation to the time-bomb thrown by Québec Premier François Legault this past week. In a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, he announced his intention to unilaterally amend the Canadian Constitution to enshrine Quebec as a “nation” and to declare French as the common language of the Québec nation.
While sounding somewhat innocuous, the implications of this are horrendous, opening a Pandora’s box related to Canadian unity. ‘Why now?’ is an interesting question. Perhaps Premier Legault thought that the rest of Canada would be too caught up in our current difficulties to care about this or to think too much about what it would really mean to the future of Canada. He may be right about that, but we ignore it at our peril.
In preparing to write this article, I reached out to a dear friend of mine, a bilingual anglophone whose principal residence is in Québec. He is a lawyer with considerable experience at the federal level and is familiar with constitutional issues. He is also a staunch Liberal. I hoped he could provide me with some background to help me understand the seriousness of the Québec government’s intentions, and he has done just that.
There is a provision in the Canadian Constitution that provides for unilateral amendments by a province in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, provided that it doesn’t affect other provinces or Canada. This provision exists because the amending formula for the Constitution is so demanding that it would impose an undue hardship on a province trying to do something constructive and harmless to other jurisdictions.
On this basis, the federal Department of Justice has issued a preliminary opinion that Québec is entitled to make the unilateral amendments to the Canadian Constitution that it has proposed. My friend has a very different point of view. He says this:
“I (and many others, including some French-speaking Quebecers) disagree. I think the declaration of nationhood sets Québec apart from, unequal to, and arguably superior to other provinces in the federation.”
He goes on to note that it is important to recognize that the word “nation” in French carries a different nuance where its meaning is closer to “a people”. He also expresses the hope that a pro-Canada group will go to the Supreme Court of Canada to shoot down Québec’s assertion of nationhood.
I, too, have great trouble with Québec’s proposals, both in relation to describing them as a “nation” and in effectively eliminating from the Constitution minority rights for English-speaking Canadians in a country that is officially bilingual. In my view, these are issues that affect the fabric of all of Canada and not just Québec.
My own belief is that this latest proposal from Québec to unilaterally amend the Constitution is a gauntlet thrown down and another intentional step toward preparing the ground for separatism. They are attempting to move closer and closer to preconditions outlined by the Supreme Court of Canada a few decades ago that could lead to a unilateral declaration of independence.
Although he is perhaps now adorned in sheep’s clothing, one should not forget that Premier François Legault was, at the beginning of his political career, an elected member for the separatist Parti Québécois.
Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was mired during his tenure with constitutional issues and with issues related to Québec nationalism. It was he who repatriated the Canadian Constitution, a Constitution by the way that Quebec did not sign, and it boggles the mind that they can now amend it. Through all of this, Pierre Trudeau asked a key question: “Who speaks for Canada?” That was an important question then and it is a vitally important question now.
François Legault knew exactly what he was doing when he dropped this grenade into the middle of an already-fragile Canadian landscape. It immediately opened the door to Alberta, a province with its own issues, to piggyback on Québec’s proposals and promote its own agenda related to independent powers. It promises to bring issues of separatism, both in Quebec and the West, clearly back into the limelight at a time when we least need it.
Further, Legault is fully aware that Canada is on the brink of another election sometime in the next several months. No party can expect to form a national government without winning seats in Québec, and so Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats will all be loath to take on that province if they can possibly avoid it. The signs are already there that they intend to duck or downplay this issue despite the enormous consequences to a united Canada.
Who, then, will speak up for Canada?
In their Saturday editorial entitled, “Don’t wave this on by”, the Toronto Star makes some interesting arguments about this. They point out that Legault is challenging federal parties to support his proposals, “in the kind of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ manoeuvre developed by Québec nationalists over decades. Either they support the demand and entrench those statements as part of fundamental Canadian law, or they oppose it and give Legault a stick to beat them with among nationalist voters. So far, at least, the federal leaders are tripping over themselves to go along.”
The Star editorial goes on to say, “But Canada deserves better leadership than that from its prime minister and those who aspire to his job. The changes Legault is pushing aren’t just routine matters and it’s far from clear they would affect Québec alone”. And again, in relation to the proposed constitutional amendments, “They potentially affect the whole country, and our federal leaders should give them the closest scrutiny, regardless of votes to be won or lost in Québec”.
There is no question, given the reality of politics, that Premier François Legault has placed the federal leaders of the Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats between a rock and a hard place. It is exactly what he intended to do. Perhaps what we need now is a move that would surprise him.
In spite of all the differences between these three political parties, what if they stood strongly together on this particular matter, standing up for all Canadians, defending minority rights, and unequivocally promoting national unity? A joint declaration of what they believe Canada stands for, one that rejects internal nationalism, superior status, and protects the rights of all Canadians in every province on a level playing field, would go a long way to defending and preserving the basic qualities that have over many centuries made us a great country envied by many others. It would also make it a lot more difficult for Premier Legault to divide and conquer.
Not withstanding the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the distractions it has caused, this latest move by the Québec government is a very significant and dangerous one. It is real. It is imminent. It has far reaching implications. It needs to be paid attention to. It cannot be ignored. It must not be shrugged off. It definitely needs strong united leadership, and it needs it now.
Who speaks for Canada?
Hugh Mackenzie has held elected office as a trustee on the Muskoka Board of Education, a Huntsville councillor, a District councillor, and mayor of Huntsville. He has also served as chairman of the District Muskoka and as chief of staff to former premier of Ontario, Frank Miller.
Hugh has served on a number of provincial, federal and local boards, including chair of the Ontario Health Disciplines Board, vice-chair of the Ontario Family Health Network, vice-chair of the Ontario Election Finance Commission, and board member of Roy Thomson Hall, the National Theatre School of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Canada. Locally, he has served as president of the Huntsville Rotary Club, chair of Huntsville District Memorial Hospital, chair of the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, president of Huntsville Festival of the Arts, and board member of Community Living Huntsville.
In business, Hugh Mackenzie has a background in radio and newspaper publishing. He was also a founding partner and CEO of Enterprise Canada, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm established in 1986.
Currently Hugh is president of C3 Digital Media Inc. and enjoys writing commentary for Huntsville Doppler.
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