Are you familiar with the movie Chinatown? It was made in the 1970s and stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Nicholson plays a private detective named Jake Gittes and Dunaway is a mysterious rich woman named Evelyn Mulwray with a horrible secret. Gittes tries to uncover the secret: a girl whom Mulwray hides from the public. It turns out that the girl is the result of an incestuous relationship Mulwray had with her father. When Nicholson discovers the girl, he confronts Mulwray and, in a now infamous scene, demands to know who she is. “She’s my daughter,” Mulwray responds. Then she corrects herself: “She’s my sister.” Back and forth it goes: “She’s my daughter”; “She’s my sister.”
Quebec is the Evelyn Mulwray of Canada. When it suits Quebec, it is a nation and demands all sorts of concessions from Ottawa that Quebec feels a nation deserves: more power over immigration (federal jurisdiction), control over taxes (such as administering its own annual income tax returns and controlling the administration of federal taxes such as the GST); control over Indian Affairs (another area of federal jurisdiction), etc. There doesn’t seem to be an area of federal jurisdiction that Quebec isn’t constantly sticking its fingers into. Quebec proudly declares for all to hear that, at the very least, it is a distinct society and, at most, the Glorious Nation of Quebec...and demands that it be recognized as such.
Yet when it comes to equalization, a magical transformation takes place: suddenly, Quebec is back to being a province. Why? Because, you see, the constitution doesn’t contain provisions for the federal government to pay equalization to nations or distinct societies. No, that wonderful source of billions of dollars is only available to provinces. So that is what Quebec considers itself to be when the paymaster in Ottawa is doling out equalization payments and, hat in hand, Quebec lines up with the other “have not” provinces ready and eager to receive oodles of booty.
Yet once the cheque is cashed, Quebec magically transforms itself back into a nation. And it’s back to business strutting itself around demanding that it be recognized as something other than a mere province. And so it goes for 12 months until the cycle returns to the next equalization pay date...and the morphing back into a province takes place again. It really is quite a miracle how this happens. Like clockwork.
Province, nation, province, nation. Sister, daughter, sister, daughter.
Quebec is the Evelyn Mulwray of Canadian politics and like the Faye Dunaway character of Chinatown can’t make up its mind. Now, with Bill 96, the wizardry is being stretched to its limits because Quebec, in attempting to amend the constitution, is pencilling in for itself even more powers that will define it as a nation. But I can assure you that this will not include exempting itself from the ability to temporarily transform itself into a province once a year so that the incredible boon that is equalization can still be enjoyed.
I’d love to see a constitutional challenge to Quebec’s ability to claim it is a province as it pertains to its right to equalization payments.
Tony Kondaks is a retired businessman currently living in Vancouver, B.C.