Justin Trudeau’s assertion last week that the government of Quebec has the right to unilaterally adopt changes to the Canadian Constitution in respect of matters that only affect Quebec and that the Constitutional amendments proposed in Bill 96 may be legally ratified in this way is preposterous on its face, a profound betrayal of the federal government’s responsibility to protect and defend the integrity of the Canadian federation and repudiation of his father’s key accomplishments.
The idea that Quebec can autonomously rewrite the terms of its place in Canada is impossible to reconcile with the history of this question. The Meech Lake Accord was a failed attempt to amend the Canadian Constitution. It was unsuccessful because it was not ratified by all Canadian provinces. The key matter which the opposing provinces could not accept was a redefinition of Quebec’s place in Canada. Yet now the Prime Minister asserts that Quebec can do just this without reference to anyone else.
Ironically the political event which gave the dissenting provinces pause; which caused them to reevaluate and reject the tentative agreement they had reached at Meech Lake was Robert Bourassa’s use of the notwithstanding clause to override a Supreme Court decision which found that the French-only commercial signs provision of Bill 101 contravened the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Legault government’s profligate use of the notwithstanding clause to protect legislation which patently violates basic human rights in Bill 21 and now in Bill 96 imposes on the federal government the responsibility to act in defense of those Canadians whose rights are being compromised, yet the Trudeau government has not joined the legal contestation of Bill 21, neither has it referred the matter directly to the Supreme Court as only it can do.
It has stood by and watched the human rights guarantees in the Constitution of Canada being trampled and it has shrugged. And now apparently instead of in any way opposing the excesses of Bill 96, the federal Liberals are okay with the wholesale abrogation of human rights and civil liberties as long as the federal government can recuse itself from the whole affair. Pierre Trudeau must be turning in his grave.
This is not just or even mainly a matter of throwing Quebec’s English-speaking minority under the bus. There are much more serious likely consequences. If provinces can design their own bespoke arrangements for the protection and support of their linguistic minorities how long will it be before the majority anglo population of New Brunswick decides to change the rules which require it to spend so much money on services for their franco cocitoyens? Will Ontario and Manitoba want to revisit their constitutionally defined obligations to their minority populations linguistic or religious, ethnic or other?
Nor is this just about language; it is about political autonomy. Quebec has already put us on notice that it seeks autonomous control of culture, so goodbye Radio Canada etc. Hello transfer of tax points. And how long before Alberta declares that unfettered hydrocarbon extraction is a constitutionally protected core value?
The Canadian federation cannot and will not survive this paradigm shift. It is hard not to see this eventuality as being essentially the point of this initiative of an autonomist, etapist Legault government.
Possibly Trudeau thinks that his maneuver will serve him well in the election which seems to be looming in the early fall. He may be risking a lot of vote across Canada and certainly in English Quebec for a shot at some nationalist vote in Quebec. The CAQ will actively support the Bloc. No concessions from Trudeau will change that. If Trudeau is thinking that this is clever political judo he may be in for an embarrassing disappointment.
But even if he were to pull this play off, the damage to the fabric of the Canadian union is way too high a price to justify the risk.