When exactly did Canada become a Constitution-bashing country?
For nearly 30 years, the political class has adhered to an unwritten ban on talking about the Constitution. But that passive aggression seems to have given way recently to outright kicks at the constitutional can. Ontario, Quebec and Alberta have taken some runs at the law of the land in the past weeks.
First it was Quebec, declaring it would be unilaterally amending the Constitution to declare itself a French-speaking nation – an idea that saw some spirited, welcome discussion in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Quebec’s bold move immediately got the endorsement of Alberta’s Jason Kenney, who has his own plans for a constitutional broadside – a referendum planned for this October in a bid to have the equalization program hauled out of the Constitution. (Campaign workers are going to need that lead time just to fit the slogans on banners for rallies.)
Meanwhile, in Ontario, Doug Ford has turned the province into a constitutional dissenter for the first time in its history, invoking the notwithstanding clause to crack down on election spending by third parties.
Why this three-pronged assault on the Constitution is taking place at the end of a pandemic is anyone’s guess. It’s as if three of Canada’s premiers have been waiting to reset the clock back to just before March 2020, when national unity was expected to be the major Canadian tension of the year.
Justin Trudeau has so far seemed remarkably sanguine about the constitutional unrest simmering around him. His response to Quebec’s unilateral foray was minimalist. According to the justice department, Trudeau said, it’s probably within the bounds of the law, so fine with him.
Interestingly, one of Trudeau’s own Liberal MPs from Quebec, Montreal MP Anthony Housefather, is a little more bothered. In a heartfelt, well-researched address to the Commons on Tuesday, Housefather said that what Quebec was proposing was a serious matter for all of Canada.
Canada has never possessed the hand-on-heart love for the Constitution that Americans proclaim about their own. This Constitution’s rocky history with Quebec, two failed efforts to amend it and incomplete business on Indigenous self-government and Senate reform have left it kind of tattered in the collective national memory.
No one is talking about renegotiating the Constitution again now either. Instead, at least three premiers are launching their own do-it-yourself renovation projects: a little French nation added on here; an Ontario exit ramp here; some exploratory excavation by Alberta at the foundations. The result could be a new Constitution built by accident, looking a bit like those houses rebuilt by multiple owners with wildly different tastes.
Housefather’s intervention on Tuesday broke some conspicuous silence in Liberal Ottawa about what’s happening to the law of the land. The MP told me later he did not believe he was saying anything contradictory to his prime minister or the government.
“I think I have gone farther than they have in tackling issues they are not currently tackling,” Housefather said diplomatically when I asked how this sat with Trudeau and Justice Minister David Lametti. He called them “relatively aligned.”
Yet up until Tuesday, it’s only been former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould who has uttered a cautionary “ahem” in the face of constitutional change by stealth and unilateralism. Wilson-Raybould was the lone MP who denied unanimous consent in late May to an earlier Bloc attempt to have the Commons endorse Quebec’s go-it-alone bid on the Constitution. She did so unapologetically, saying in a Twitter post that it was “dismaying how political partisanship/pandering leads MPs to abandon core legal norms.” Silence, she said, was akin to cowardice.
Housefather’s speech on Tuesday may be intended to break that silence, at least in Liberal ranks, where it’s hard to imagine that this new round of Constitution-bashing is going to be tolerated without a peep of protest.
Canadians have never been the type to put the Constitution on a pedestal, but one assumes that they would draw the line at damage and breakage. Not talking about it has kept it reasonably intact for decades, but refusing to talk about it now may change it for the worse.
Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.