Hébert: Quebec’s federation paper offers Canadians nothing new

Titled “Being Québécois: It’s our way of being Canadians,” Quebec’s most comprehensive paper on its place in the federation in more than 20 years is little more than a bottle thrown in the ocean.

Premier Philippe Couillard has no real expectation that it will be fished out any time soon, if ever. He would probably be the first to be surprised if his initiative led to any kind of a constitutional denouement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not about to let the constitutional genie out of the bottle, and not just because the prospect of a successful resolution of Quebec’s constitutional agenda is dim at best.

Even if Trudeau did not have his hands full on the Canada-U.S. front, there is no indication that he is more enamoured of Quebec’s central demand for the formal recognition of its distinctiveness than his father was.

The current prime minister was not yet an MP at the time of Stephen Harper’s 2006 Quebec nation motion. He did not cast a vote.

But the issue was also a defining feature of that same fall’s Liberal leadership race. In that campaign Trudeau cast his lot with former Ontario minister Gerald Kennedy, the leading candidate who was most vocal in his opposition to the motion.

For his part, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer cut his teeth in politics on the Reform side of the conservative movement at a time when opposition to the constitutional recognition of Quebec’s distinctive character was one of the party’s core dogma. He is not about to start his tenure by going to war with part of his base.

This week, the only difference between his response to Quebec’s policy paper and Trudeau’s was that the Conservative rebuttal was delivered more politely.

The NDP’s Thomas Mulcair did have good words for Couillard’s initiative. But he sounded more like the former Quebec Liberal that he is than the federal leader who, in the last election, seemed to suggest that he could negotiate the abolition of the senate without engaging in a full-fledged Quebec round.

Unless Mulcair’s successor wants to campaign on reopening the Quebec/Canada constitutional front in 2019, the NDP might consider setting aside its senate plank.

At this juncture, it is far from clear that Quebecers are keener than other Canadians to pick up the constitutional debate where it was left off in the mid-’90s.

But, be that as it may, they, and not their counterparts in the rest of Canada, are the prime target audience for Couillard’s bid.

The Parti Québécois is not the only Quebec party that has used sovereignty as the glue to bind its supporters; since 1995, the fear of a return to referendum politics has driven scores of voters to the Liberals.

Now that PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée has ruled out a referendum until at least 2023, voters who used the Liberals as an insurance policy against a return of the sovereigntists to power are freer to look elsewhere. Recent polls suggest that quite a few are giving the nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec another look. It is now the leading party among francophone voters.

Time will tell whether moving his constitutional agenda from the storage room to the Liberal window will allow Premier Couillard to stop some of his 2014 supporters from shopping elsewhere. It could be that the Quebec Liberals can no more hang on to the favourable alignment that has kept them in power for most of the post-referendum era than their sovereigntist foes could maintain the momentum that almost gave them a victory in 1995.

Since then, both have equally failed to advance their constitutional agendas.

All that being said, this policy paper should be a must-read for anyone on Parliament Hill or in a provincial capital who wants to know what to expect when dealing with the province.

The document amounts to almost 200 pages of cheat codes to grasp the rationale that guides Quebec and its National Assembly in their dealings with their federation partners.

As the paper notes, those dealings extend far beyond the relatively narrow field of Quebec’s long-standing constitutional concerns.

It was written under the supervision of the province’s most federalist party. But a non-Liberal government, operating within the existing Canadian framework, would bring little more to the federal-provincial files than variations along the same themes.

Long-time Quebec-watchers will be familiar with the paper’s rhetoric and the autonomist thread that runs through it. That thread predates the 1960 Quebec Quiet Revolution. The news, if any, is that, when it comes to its relationship to federalism, there is nothing fundamentally new under the Quebec sun.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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