Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ma Nation, Mon Pays

Say what you will about Michael Ignatieff (and I've said a lot), but the man has certainly made the Liberal leadership race a lot more lively than it would have been in his absence. Case in point is his proposal to re-open constitutional discussions which has generated quite a few diverse reactions.

I can't say I'm surprised about Michael's position since he'd said he was open to constitutional talks back in April when I interviewed him. And as a candidate who thinks big and thinks bold, the chance to make constitutional changes must certainly appeal to him. There's nothing wrong with shooting for the stars but as I've said before, I think this would be a huge mistake for both practical and theoretical reasons.

1. First of all, here's what's needed to amend the constitution: "Amendments can only be passed by the Canadian House of Commons, the Senate, and a two-thirds majority of the provincial legislatures representing at least 50% of the national population". Given that one of the reasons cited for opening the constitution is that Quebec didn't sign the original deal (see point 1 below), we would need all ten provinces to ascent to the new deal.

2. There is no way you are going to get ten Premiers, the First Nations, and a variety of special interest groups to agree on a constitutional framework. The provinces not listed as nations would only agree to a deal if there was a massive decentralization of powers. On the flip side, every potential "nation" would insist on being included and would be royally peeved if they weren't. And if every potential "nation" from the Acadiens to the Colbert Nation were included, would it really satisfy the nationalists in Quebec that they were one of fourteen nations?

3. A failure to reach this would cause a massive backlash among all groups who expected to get something out of the deal. This would be especially true in Quebec. Right now, the separatists have no real issue to cling to but this would revitalize them and give them ammunition to argue that "Canada does not work".

4. The Liberal Party would be fractured on this issue dramatically. I can't see the Trudeau wing of the party going along with this at all. We all remember what happened with Meech and the "vendu! vendu!" chants and no one wants to see a repeat of that.

1. The argument that Quebec didn't sign the original deal is BS. It was ratified by a Quebec Prime Minister and virtually every Quebec MP. So there is no real need to have Quebec sign just for the sake of having them sign the deal.

2. Can you really recognize all First Nations as one nation? There are over 600 reserves and over 20 language families. It is first nations (with an s) after all, so the question is which of the First Nations will be deserving of "nation" status and which won't be?

3. Will the Acadians be recognized as a nation? How about the Metis? How about the British/loyalists/Ukrainians/trekkies?

4. If Quebec is a nation, would Newfoundland be a nation? They're certainly distinct, right down to the weird time zone and funny accent. Or how about Nunavut? Under the logic that Quebec is a nation because it is of a majority French, wouldn't Nunavut be a nation because it is majority First Nations? What about Alberta? We've certainly got a common history and culture out here too.

5. This point is the crux of my whole argument and why I'm dead set against this idea. The problem is not so much recognizing the French Canadians as a nation; we do that when we talk about "founding nations". The problem is of recognizing Quebec itself as a nation and of equating the French Canadian nation with the Quebec nation. Even if you claim that no special powers come with that title, you're saying Quebec is more than a province (and if Quebec is more than a province then why shouldn't it be it's own country...). You're also saying that Quebec is the only home of French Canadians in Canada. This would be a massive slap in the face to the million French Canadians living outside the province of Quebec. You'd basically be telling them that they're fundamentally different from the francophones in Quebec because of where they live. Somehow they're not part of the nation because they live in New Brunswick or eastern Ontario or Alberta, rather than Quebec. Personally, I grew up as an anglophone in Montreal (with all four of my grandparents having lived in Quebec too) and if I were still living there, I would not consider myself part of any Quebec nation. A Quebecer, yes - but not part of some mythical Quebec nation. I suspect a lot of anglophones, allophones, and even French Canadian federalists in Quebec would take great issue with this too.

Pierre Trudeau's vision of this country recognized both French and English languages and cultures...from coast to coast. I think it would be a grave mistake to equate French Canadians with Quebec and English Canadians with the other nine provinces. In his letter to the editor today, Michael Behiels said it better than I ever could:

"Mr. Ignatieff foolishly equates the substate of Quebec, one province within the federation, with its francophone community, a nationality that is the heart but not the totality of Canada's francophone and Acadian communities. With his call for the formal fusion of the francophone nation, a sociological reality, and the Quebec state, a constitutional entity, he plays into the hands of Quebec neo-nationalists who want to redefine the pan-Canadian duality based on two official languages into a territorial duality based on states. In trumpeting this conception, he also plays into the hands of Quebec secessionists, who will simply build on this highly unstable arrangement."

It's good that Ignatieff has people talking about these issues but what he's promising would be taking this country down a very dangerous road.


  • The best response to Ignatieff (besides CG), was what Dion said:

    "Canada works better in practice than in theory."

    At once Dion emphasized Ignatieff's amateur status (no practical knowledge of how the country works); and invokes once again the perception of Ignatieff as the inhabitant of an ivory tower -- the one who can make theoretical pronouncements, without having to take responsibility for their practical effects.

    And though Dion's response sounds like a throw-away quip, it also shows a deep understanding of our country and its history. He'd probably be an excellent PM.

    By Blogger Simon Pole, at 1:24 a.m.  

  • Extremely well articulated. The examples of questions of nationhood for Newfoundland and Nunavut are good ones that I have frequently used to try to demonstrate how proposals such as Ignatieff's are off the mark.

    By Blogger Braeden Caley, at 2:52 a.m.  

  • Great post CG, I had been considering making a post on the same subject but you said everything much more eloquently then I would have.

    By Blogger A View From The Left, at 9:55 a.m.  

  • Good post, CG. I think you were one of the ones who said early on that having Ignatieff in the race was going to be a good thing - whether you supported him or not - because he was going to raise the level of debate and focus us on real priorities and issues.

    You are helping that process by spelling out in detail your view in response to his.

    Let me add a couple of thoughts to the mix.

    Quebec's distinctive derives only partially from its language. The civil code vs. common law as a basis for laws is another extremely significant point. But the issue is not their distinctiveness - Rae, Dion and Ignatieff all agree that their distinctiveness is a fact not a myth - the question is whether that fact needs to be enshrined in the constitution and if enshrined how enshrined.

    Remember we haven't had a constitutional discussion about a decade and a half. We don't just jump back to that ending point. Mulroney tried to fast-track constitutional reform and then tried to make it an all things to all people package that failed twice.

    This is the start of a conversation that could take as long as it took to bring the constitution home in the first place. Are we content to never have Quebecers feel they are fully part of our constitution and government? Is there anyone who believes we should never try constitutional reform again? It has to start somewhere, sometime. And it will start slowly and build and if there is no general consensus then there won't be a constitutional amendment and if there is then we have moved our country forward.

    Another point not addressed by those saying no to Ignatieff's boldness: what do Liberals do to re-engage Quebecers? As Chantal Hebert points out, the Liberals are irrelevant to Quebecers, especially francophone Quebecers. We have been reduced to a few anglophone enclaves in and around a single city.

    We here in English Canada can carry on about how this is not what the country needs, but if we Liberals believe that and want to become relevant to Quebecers again we need to finish that sentence. If this is not what the country or Quebec needs, then what is?

    By Blogger Ted Betts, at 10:54 a.m.  

  • "If Quebec is a nation, would Newfoundland be a nation?"

    First, let me say I sympethize with your comments in general, but feel that some tough questions are worth asking.

    Second, your remarks on what constitutes nationhood run a little shallow. You don't really offer up an criteria by which to make criticisms of Ignatieff's stance. And here I must side wtih Charles Taylor on the question of French nationhood and identity, in which case they *are* distinct from, say, Newfoundland (my heritage).

    The reality of openning the constitutional question is scary. What alternatives do we have to working out some of the that constitition's problems?

    By Blogger Kenneth Sheppard, at 11:07 a.m.  

  • Killer post, man. Nothing to add.

    Articulate and just plain well-done.

    By Blogger Jacques Beau Vert, at 11:11 a.m.  

  • As an Ignatieff supporter I have to say I agree with everything you said.
    Excellent post.
    At least you are raising the level of debate in this contest.

    By Blogger Aristo, at 11:32 a.m.  

  • Great post CG.

    I agree with Cerberus that we need to have the debate, but I think the conclusion of the debate must, for our own sakes, be to put the constitution back on the shelf for a while.

    I wrote about some of the reasons for that, but also added brief thoughts on what we should be doing instead. Some posters are cocnerned that simply rejecting constitutional debate means giving up on healing the rifts between various stakeholders in confederation, but I don't think so.

    By Blogger Gavin Magrath, at 11:49 a.m.  

  • Second, your remarks on what constitutes nationhood run a little shallow. You don't really offer up an criteria by which to make criticisms of Ignatieff's stance. And here I must side wtih Charles Taylor on the question of French nationhood and identity, in which case they *are* distinct from, say, Newfoundland (my heritage).

    That's kind of the problem. There is no well defined criterion so it's hard to reach a concensus on what makes a nation - so someone will be upset afterwards.

    And if you use language as the defining feature, then you should just call French Canadians a nation, not the province of Quebec.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 1:24 p.m.  

  • The quote you reference is valid. Michael should be careful to not equate Quebec with a single nation. I don't know if he's done that, but I'm going to keep my eyes open, because that would be a bad idea.

    But the rest of your post (which seems to receive almost unanimous praise) can be summarized "it would be practically difficult and politically risky."

    This is what I wonder: Do we have any reason to believe that it's going to get easier, or less risky over time?

    Because if we don't, I wonder how many of us are going to be willing in 30 years to tell our children honestly: "We stopped trying because it seemed hard."

    By Blogger Gauntlet, at 1:57 p.m.  

  • I suppose the other argument that you could use to justify doing nothing is the argument that the constitution doesn't matter. That is, we don't need to be able to change it.

    It's a valid argument, just one with which I fundamentally disagree.

    By Blogger Gauntlet, at 2:00 p.m.  

  • The reality of openning the constitutional question is scary. What alternatives do we have to working out some of the that constitition's problems?

    You assume that the lack of recognition of the "Quebec nation" is a problem in the Canadian constitution. This ignores that a constitution is simply a legal document delineating the legal framework through which a country operates. It is NOT a document in which to determine which geographical areas or ethno-linguistic groups deserve special recognition which may or may not confer open-ended legal powers. The reason is simple - no one can agree on who should be recognized and, if so, how that recognition should be conferred. Both Meech and Charlottetown failed for good reason - they would have recognized Quebec's "distinct society" without clarifying whether that entailed special powers not available to other provinces. Of course, since in the current climate those "other provinces" are generally unwilling to see Quebec receive something they won't get, we end up with a national unity crisis.

    There will be no grand solution to national unity problems because of this fundamental disagreement. The constitution is not the place for attempts to arrive at a political "solution" to Quebec. Experience has made that all too clear, and anyone who ignores that experience is a fool. Hence Ignatieff is a fool.

    I'm not even a Liberal, but I heartily endorse Dion for leader - he's the only one who can be trusted on this issue.

    By Blogger JG, at 3:10 p.m.  

  • Many First Nation or Indian people are already recognized as "nations" in some form. Read the treaties signed between the Crown (later Government of Canada) and the indian provisions of the Royal Proclomation of 1763. I beleive indigenous rights are in a class entirely of their own and they are not the same as other groups who later came to Canada. Indigenous people have unique laws, rights and governments which are based on the fact that they were the prior and indigenous occupants than other new Canadians. They had trade, land, social, political and legal concepts prior to European arrival. Aboriginal people do not want out of Canada, they like Quebec, want their unique position respected and truly brought into the Canadian confederation. As for the other groups, they are just various social and ethno-cultural groups that have distinct languages, religion and culture, but no legal basis to claim the title of nation in Canada.

    By Blogger Joshua Fraser, at 4:42 p.m.  

  • Josh Gould said "This ignores that a constitution is simply a legal document delineating the legal framework through which a country operates."

    Excellent point. The problems in Quebec have very little to do with the Constitution - it is just a flashpoint. I think the appropriate resolution is social and political, not legal.

    Gauntlet said: "Do we have any reason to believe that it's going to get easier, or less risky over time?"

    This comment assumes without stating it that this is a problem that must be dealt with, and now's as good a time as any.

    Firstly, now is not as good a time as any: 2006, featuring a new minority government with a leader who is a political neophyte and a base of operations almost exclusively in the west, PLUS a liberal party in opposition that is leaderless, must surely be one of the worst times to engage in this kind of discussion... far worse than Meech or Charlottetown, which failed.

    More importantly, I don't think we have to deal with this issue soon or ever. If we have a government of vision implementing a socially progressive platform and treating the provinces (and other groups) with respect, that will be the sort of government that most Canadians and most Qubeckers will support, and it will create the sort of Canada of which Quebeckers will be a proud part. If most quebeckers are proud Canadians, the sovereignty issue (and the constitutional issue) will evaporate.

    By Blogger Gavin Magrath, at 5:54 p.m.  

  • policy - anyone is free to respond. I wouldn't mind hearing from a nationalist on this...

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 6:38 p.m.  

  • As I've said at Ted's and at mine -- I've always thought that (politely and with great tact) divesting ourselves of the British Monarchy for a Canadian Head of State could really help unity matters.

    By Blogger Jacques Beau Vert, at 6:51 p.m.  

  • The best response to Ignatieff (besides CG), was what Dion said:

    "Canada works better in practice than in theory."

    This was ripped off of Harper, who always says this, including in the last debate.

    By the way, great post grit.

    By Blogger Brad, at 7:07 p.m.  

  • I’m more inclined to agree with joshua fraser on this. Both Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have large Aboriginal communities, in my first hand experience the majority of these nations would not want out of Canada.
    Nunavut is majority Inuit [for those that don’t know, Inuit is plural, Inuk singular], Inuit should not be confused with “First Nations”, that term is used to identify a certain section of the Aboriginal population of Canada, but not Inuit.

    By Blogger Brian, at 10:17 a.m.  

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