Here’s a good-news, bad-news story from the 2019 federal election campaign: The Constitution has sneaked back into national political debate.
It’s good news for the couple of hundred of us in Canada who really enjoyed the national-unity dramas of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It’s bad news, presumably, for the millions of other Canadians who found that whole saga so annoying that the country collectively declared a long-term ban on any more political talk of fixing the Constitution.
Somehow, though, the ban seems to have been lifted over the course of this campaign. While we were busy having an election about nothing in particular, the Constitution has tiptoed on stocking feet back into the political conversation.
New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh has been one of the chief revivalists, unveiling a number of policy proposals that call for opening up the Constitution — abolishing the Senate, for instance, and promising to find a way to get Quebec to sign the document after refusing to do so for nearly 40 years.
“The fact that historically, Quebec has not signed the Constitution is a mistake that should not exist,” Singh said early in the campaign.
Thirty-five years ago, Brian Mulroney also thought that was a smart promise to make in his first federal election campaign, but few have gone out on that limb since.
The follow through on that Mulroney promise — two failed constitutional accords, Meech and Charlottetown, made the Constitution a no-go zone in Canadian politics for pretty much a generation afterward. Until now.
And it isn’t just Singh who’s circling around the Constitution in this campaign.
The surge by the Bloc Quebecois has sent all federal party leaders scrambling to Quebec to win favour in the late days of this campaign and a lot of the language sounds a lot like the constitutional wooing efforts of the last century.
Even that rallying cry of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution — maitres chez nous — is getting some new life.
Here was Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on Tuesday night: “As prime minister, my message to Quebecers will be simple. When we speak about Quebec powers? Yes, you are masters of your own house, masters of your culture, masters of your institutions.”
Premier Francois Legault, following the long tradition of his predecessors, even has a list of demands ready for federal politicians seeking his province’s favour. They don’t technically involve reopening the Constitution, but they’re all about enhancing Quebec’s power, much like the demands of the past.
In last week’s French-language leaders’ debate, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau indicated that he’d be willing to give on one of those demands, involving more Quebec control over immigration.
One of the prices Mulroney paid for his constitutional adventures was a rise in Western alienation and the ascent of the Reform Party. As coincidence would have it, Canada already has an emerging issue of western separatist sentiment, as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — who was one of those early Reform members — keeps saying.
Kenney has mused aloud about holding a referendum to get the provision for equalization payments out of the Constitution, so it looks like constitutional creep has made its way beyond Quebec, too.
Canada’s Constitution went underground primarily because efforts to change it proved impossible. Some changes would require the approval of seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population, while others need unanimous provincial consent.
It’s also been argued that, in this day and age, you’d need a national referendum to seal any deal — and that didn’t turn out too well when it came to the 1992 Charlottetown accord.
There was some musing on social media this week whether a victorious Scheer might want to take a run at changing the Constitution, given all the conservative allies he has in charge of provinces right now: Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and even Legault in Quebec (to some degree).
That’s a ready-made 7-50 formula, if Scheer happens to have some constitutional change in mind.
Sandy Garossino, a lawyer and journalist, has been urging that Scheer be pressed on this question — whether he too has caught constitutional fever, like Singh apparently has.
Trudeau, for his part, has never professed any desire to get into the Constitution-building business — unlike his father, who famously gave Canada the impossible-to-change law of the land we have today.
But if Trudeau does manage to hold on to his job, he may find that this campaign has reopened that Pandora’s box anyway. It’s just been long enough, it seems, for politicians to start talking about lifting the long ban we’ve had on constitutional intrigue in Canada.
Anyway, as they say, what could possibly go wrong?
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.