Letter to Progressive Conservative Party Policy Advisory Committee
later copied to The Leader, Jean Charest
Dated 18th December, 1996.
Quebec’s sovereigntist forces are regrouping: Lucien Bouchard must deal with issues of governance, preparing Quebec for the next referendum, while the BQ, through its leadership process, will confirm or redefine its raison d’etre.
If we care to listen (and I think we must begin listening very carefully) the good news in all this is that for the first time, sovereigntists must articulate some clear concepts about how they see sovereignty working, particularly vis a vis Canada. This in turn will give us some specifics to address and a fresh perspective on some of the problems that have plagued Canada since the time of Confederation.
One of those problems was succinctly articulated at our Eastern Ontario conference last year in Kingston. In the view of Professor Banting, Head of the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University, Canada’s major constitutional problem has been reconciling the three equalities: equality of citizenship, equality of peoples, and equality of provinces. I didn’t take notes, but I seem to remember him saying that Canada has, by and large, muddled through without ever addressing the issue head on...
We in the PC party extended the tradition of muddling contradiction last August in Winnipeg when we voted for distinct society recognition for Quebec and a triple E Senate. The contradiction becomes apparent when you consider that if all the provinces are equal, how can one be distinct? Similarly, if all citizens are equal, then doesn’t equality of provinces create some citizens who are more equal than others? Not to mention what equality of peoples does to equalities of citizenship!
I don’t think there is any way of backpedalling on our Winnipeg resolutions ... but I do think it is within the purview of both the party leadership and its policy arm to re-frame the issue in which those resolutions appear.
So, in the first instance, any policy on national unity must address three central concerns:
1) How does Canada resolve the contradictions and problems inherent in the three equalities and what are the institutional and jurisdictional (implications)? ...
2) What is the process by which the above will be achieved? The Liberals promised that the people would have a voice in any constitutional initiative they undertook. The PCs can do no less.
3) Will answers to the above obviate the need for a referendum in Quebec? Or, if a referendum does take place, will its worst effects (economic instability, social upheaval) be mitigated by them?
Easy answers are nonexistent but that doesn’t preclude an obligation to find them, even the difficult ones.
So, in the first place, I’ll venture that the federal government should get right out of the recognition game. Any of us can and would live with recognition status, particularly for Quebec, if only because, at the psychological level, recognition is a wonderful tool for positive reinforcement and we all want Quebec to be nothing but herself. But recognitions is als o a black hole out of which demands for more recognition would arise, this time from other sectors of Canadian society, and then there are all those problems with asymmetry. In the end, the term would be meaningless and Quebecers would fell bitter and cheated. Again.
The federal government should also get right out of the equality of provinces game if only because it isn’t true and even if it were it wouldn’t be sustainable. Borrowing from a well known ‘Thatcherism’, "Let the tall (provinces) grow tall" and, I would add, let the small provinces grow exquisite. But give them all the tools with which to pursue their own distinctnesses, because in the end distinctness is as distinctness does, not what others think they recognise it to be.
This leaves only the equality of citizenship game for the federal government and that is exactly as it should be. With the proviso that for the federal government effectively to guarantee equality of citizenship, it will probably meet with success only in its areas of exclusive jurisdiction. Anything else takes us right back to muddle and contradiction. My ‘formula’ for this kind of political arrangement is "federally evolved for the benefit of the individual, collectively devolved for the benefit of the group (or nation/people/province/territory).
Of course this would mean some fundamental changes to Canada and on this front the sovereigntists are way ahead of us, even to the extent of trying to determine whether they should atempt to renegotiate our political arrangements before or after UDI. Certainly the current trend to administrative tinkering and trying to change through the back door what we couldn’t through the front won’t cut it.
But people’s eyes are glazed over, I hear you say, Canadians don’t want to know about all this, they’ll take any stop gap measure just to get it out of their hair.
I submit to you that we are frightened, weary, in a state of shock and denial and so fundamentally discouraged that we will look even to Jean Chretien as a beacon of hope. We have been told so many times (repeated yet again when Bourrassa passed away - I wept!) of our "failure" - first with patriation, then the Victoria Charter, then Meech Lake and finally the Charlottetown Accord that we have no choice but to conclude we’re a miserable and inadequate lot because we can’t even pull a constitution together! Why bother! Why try! Let Quebec go!
We are in desperate need of someone who can give us some faith in ourselves, who can simultaneously pat us on the back and kick us in the pants and most of all get us to roll up our sleeves and tackle this problem yet again. Jean must not shy away from this task because this is something he really can do. He, of all people, can lift us out of this terrible funk.
But that still doesn’t solve the problem of process. I have thought about this a lot and like Peter Lougheed have concluded that a constituent assembly is the ethical solution. Ethical because politicians should be creating the rules by which they govern (conflict of interest also sets in on issues regarding electoral change, salaries and pensions). If we add to Lougheed’s formula the proviso that this take place once every 20 years or so, a constituent assembly is also the practical choice. Practical because with each generation getting its opportunity to do its civic duty, no one assembly need solve all problems all at once. Relieved of the worst excesses of a managerialist approach to constitution making (Meech Lake’s great flaw) only what needs to be done need get done. In other words, no assembly need ‘fail’, which has been the curse of recent constitutional initiatives.
I am not suggesting we get out on the hustings this spring promoting a constituent assembly. But much in the way that I think we must spell out the options available on substantive issues, so must the constituent assembly be one among many process options. ...
Moreover, spelling out our options on substance and process takes us out of the win/lose, quantitative, who-gets-how-much mentality that almost doomed Canada under Meech and Charlottetown and that also threatens Canada under the Liberals Plan A & B approach. It will also remind Canadians that we needn’t feel like children about to be orphaned because our parents (sic Quebec and Canada) are divorcing. No matter what happens, we need to be reminded that Quebec is not going anywhere, that we on the northern half of the North American continent will continue to share history, geography and weather and that the only thing that is up for grabs are the political arrangements under which we will continue to do so.
In the meantime, we must pay attention to how sovereigntists articulate Quebec’s future and the processes they will bring to achieving it. Among the BQ leadership hopefuls, several are speaking more clearly and openly about a European style union: even Bouchard is emerging from his ‘partenariat’ stance as a moderate. The real ray of hope in all this is that while Europe started as an economic union it is moving towards political union and while Canada has existed as a political union, there are pressures to have a more effective economic union. The only question is which of these two geographic areas - Canada or Europe - will get the mix right.
The challenge and the opportunity for our party, then, is to subsume the sovereigntist agenda - not with a view to promoting sovereignty for Quebec but with a view to embracing critical, bold and new thinking. Only this approach will create the lean, mean, legislative machine that is capable of sailing the high seas of global competitiveness, shifting demographics and environmental security and that all Canadians, including Quebecers, will want and need in the 21st Century.