The Québec government has initiated a historic engagement process. The 2017 Policy on Québec Affirmation and Canadian Relations, invites a dialogue with the other governments and civil society organizations in Canada on recognizing Québec’s place in the federation in a mutually satisfactory way and ending the constitutional stalemate of the 1980’s and 1990’s. The dialogue is overdue but only possible now that the divisive emotions of those past constitutional struggles have subsided. As the Québec Premier observed, “Today, a large majority of Quebecers believe that Québec progresses when it is united instead of divided; when it participates instead of withdrawing; and above all, when it builds bridges instead of walls between the partners in the federation.” The Policy begins the bridge-building.
The Affirmation Policy objectives are straightforward. By entering a dialogue with Canadians and their governments, the Quebec government hopes to ensure that Québec and its history in Canada are better understood. Through this knowledge, mutual trust can be established that would enable Quebec to build better relations with the other governments and especially Indigenous peoples. This relationship would be anchored in a twenty-first century vision of the Canadian federation that embraces individual and collectives identities without one diminishing the other. Québec’s national character would be affirmed and fully expressed in Canada, and Quebec would assume its rightful place as a founding people of Canada. Canada would emerge as a model of respectful collaboration for the rest of the world. Québec’s way of being Canadian would be accepted in all facets of its relations with Canada.
There are six steps to achieving these objectives. First, Québec’s identity would be affirmed as a francophone nation that engages on a nation-to-nation basis with Indigenous peoples and embraces its anglophone and immigrant communities. It has begun this process with the treaties and accords signed with Indigenous governments, and with the policy of interculturalism that embraces diversity while upholding Québec’s values.
Second, Québec would strengthen its voice and place of belonging in Canada. This includes affirming the status of its citizens as both Quebecers and Canadians and its desire to continue playing a role in building Canada. Quebec would define its way of being Canadian, including shaping its own destiny and development and protecting its fields of jurisdiction from encroachment.
Third, Québec would play a dynamic role in Canada by employing every means possible and taking its seat at all intergovernmental and policy tables. It would retain its representation in federal institutions and play a constructive leadership role in guaranteeing Québec’s interests in international and domestic bilateral and multilateral negotiations. It would operate its own international relations within its jurisdiction as a complement to federal government international actions.
Fourth, recognizing that common ties are not just governmental or institutional, Québec would forge links between Québec and Canadian individuals and civil society organizations to inculcate the knowledge and respect crucial to an inclusive dialogue. This includes outreach activities that broadcast Québec’s history and identity throughout Canada, exchange programs to create ties between individual Quebecers and Canadians, research grants to promote scholarship on the Québec project, and promotion of the francophone space within and outside Canada.
Fifth, Québec would break down the taboo around constitutional negotiations on the future of Canada by building a basis for cooperation. A Québec-led, non-constitutional, community-based dialogue that emphasizes a diverse, tolerant Canada, would prepare the way for constitutional recognition of Québec’s identity and the tools needed to protect its specificity.
Finally, Québec would seek to have its distinctiveness recognized and respected on an ongoing basis through the acceptance of asymmetrical arrangements within the federation. It would retain its fiscal autonomy and fair share of federal expenditures with opting-in provisions built into joint arrangements. Asymmetrical arrangements would be the accepted approach to intergovernmental negotiations and agreements, thus reflecting provincial equality, autonomy and collective aspirations.
The initial dialogue is not constitutional but civil, so it does not risk peeling the bandage off the old constitutional wounds. Quebec is reaching out to the rest of Canada at a time when support for independence has waned, and a commitment to reconciliation and collective rights has gained strength. However, this dialogue and ambitious project of engagement with Canada is not without peril.
The dialogue is predicated upon the rest of Canada responding in an equally open and sincere manner. Canada must reciprocate by accepting the Québec way of being Canadian and demonstrating a firm commitment to inclusivity, diversity and respect. To date, the response from other Canadian governments has been tepid at best and, in the case of the federal government, arrogantly dismissive. As the son of the Prime Minister who oversaw the entrenchment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the isolation of Québec in 1982, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to engage in any discussions that presage the opening of the constitution, preferring instead to focus on economic priorities. Under Trudeau’s watch the dialogue may become a soliloquy.
A dialogue involves give and take. This may be how the other governments in Canada approach Québec’s invitation.
- Saskatchewan Premier Wall commented that his province would want to discuss other constitutional matters, including an equalization formula that sees his province as a contributor and – he did not add explicitly – Quebec as a recipient.
- In the heat of the pipeline dispute, the Alberta Premier has stated that Canada is in a constitutional crisis. She may use this opportunity to pursue economic protections.
- In an unpredictable election year, Ontario may demand changes to the equalization formula and transfer payments that would allow it to tame its deficit and debt gorilla.
- In the wake of the federal government’s unilateral imposition of a moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters, the territories may push for more control over their economic futures and, although provincehood seems unlikely, for some constitutional protections.
Québec may find that its entreaty to talk is met with a list of provincial and territorial grievances that only grows through dialogue.
One danger of any engagement project is that expectations spiral out of control or that they collide and become irreconcilable. The affirmation policy speaks of a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples, rightly noting Québec advances in signing treaties and land claims recognizing the right to self-government. And yet, the policy identifies northern lands as “the territory of Québec” and the Cree and Inuit as stakeholders in their development. Indigenous leaders may dispute this characterization. Québec and Indigenous governments’ expectations regarding roles and responsibilities for these lands may be irreconcilable, especially as environmental and resource rent-seeking claims collide. Other conflicts may involve borders, southern lands, and recognition of culture and language.
Similarly, other ethnic, cultural and religious communities may challenge Québec’s definition of being Canadian and argue for the same principles of inclusion, respect and tolerance to be applied to their way of being Quebecers. As happened in the old constitutional wars, civil society groups including women’s groups may argue for explicit recognition of their rights and status even at the expense of the Quebec identity articulated as the core of the interculturalism policy. The dialogue, whether civil or constitutional, will require a maestro to attain harmony and avoid discord.
Asymmetry is at the heart of the Québec dialogue. Asymmetry is the oil that keeps confederation running well. However, if asymmetry is applied in intergovernmental arrangements in a way that favours or appears to favour one region disproportionately or at the expense of others, then it may become the agent that bogs the Canadian engine. In contrast, if the dominant approach to asymmetry in intergovernmental relations in Canada is to create framework agreements that establish jointly-defined and shared principles within which provincial difference is accommodated, then the common project of Canada may run more smoothly in future.
Québec has begun a dialogue. Anthony Giddens has reminded us that dialogue keeps people together, removing the need for exit or violence. The rest of Canada will need to reciprocate if it is to avoid the consequences of another humiliation for Québec.
Kathy L. Brock is a professor at Queen’s School of Policy Studies.