Few people rejoiced on anniversary of Charter

No one danced in the streets of Quebec or in the Conservative power circles of Parliament Hill on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms last week.

No one danced in the streets of Quebec or in the Conservative power circles of Parliament Hill on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms last week.

As they have done on every significant anniversary, proponents and critics of the 1982 patriation package re-argued their respective cases. Shirts were torn up on both sides of the argument by all the usual suspects.

Perhaps what is most striking about the three-decade-old Canadian debate is that neither side ever seems to win over the other on any of its arguments.

For comparison’s sake, the same is not true of the free-trade issue, the other defining Canadian debate of the ‘80s.

As is sometimes the case though, the most meaningful chasm is not necessarily the most apparent.

If there are two staunch constitutional solitudes in this country, the line between them does not really sit on the patriation divide.

Because they both harbour mixed feelings about the patriated Constitution, it is tempting to conclude that on this issue at least Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and Quebecers are on the same page.

But that only works if one does not look below the surface. Thirty years after the fact, the values of the Charter actually enjoy as much if not more support in Quebec as in the rest of the country.

Over the past three decades, advances on the front of social rights — in particular with regard to access to abortion and same-sex marriage — have enhanced its standing in that province.

The expansion of minority language education rights has also contributed to give the Charter a positive aura in Quebec.

In the end, the francophone minorities who live in the rest of Canada won more ground as a result of the Charter than Quebec had to give up on the language front. The core of the province’s language regime turned out to be Charter-proof.

The fact that the prime minister and the nine premiers of the day dispensed with Quebec’s formal approval when they agreed to patriate the Constitution is usually the least of its concerns. Many of its charter members have always believed that Quebec enjoyed undue influence on national affairs.

By and large, what many Conservatives hate most about the Charter happen to be its top redeeming features in the eyes of most Quebecers.

That is true of abortion and gay rights. It is also within the conservative movement that opposition to minority language rights, including official bilingualism, has tended to run deepest.

Looking at those conflicting currents, one is reminded that this year will see a constitutional anniversary of another kind. Next fall, it will be 20 years since Quebec and most of the rest of Canada said no to the Charlottetown Accord for opposite reasons.

It was judged to fall short of the province’s aspirations while a majority in the rest of Canada felt that it went too far in that same direction.

That division is intact today and it dooms any attempt to reopen the Constitution either to address — as many Quebecers would wish — the special place of their province in the federation or to modernize the country’s 19th-century national institutions.

Still one would have thought the Harper Conservatives would have found cause to celebrate this week, for they ultimately owe their dominant position on the federal landscape to the schism between progressive Quebec and progressive Canada that resulted from the circumstances of the 1982 patriation.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.