Premier Couillard calls for Quebecers to fully join Canadian federation
Premier Philippe Couillard has long wished for Quebec to sign the Constitution and truly be a part of the Canadian federation.
On Thursday he unveiled his plan to reopen the constitutional debate by launching a coast-to-coast discussion in the hopes of having the province's distinct character officially recognized.
"We are an inclusive nation," said Couillard before beginning to speak in English. "Our nation includes our English-speaking fellow Quebecers whose actions and institutions have contributed significantly to our development. This was true yesterday. It still is true today and will be tomorrow."
"We are all Quebecers and therefore we can all say, in French and in English, etre quebecois c'est notre façon d'etre canadien: Being a Quebecer is our way of being Canadian."
Couillard's plan is outlined in a 200-page document that aims to convince Canadians to recognize Quebec as a distinct society.
The document also explains the rationale behind the conditions first outlined by then-premier Robert Bourassa in 1986:
- Recognition of Quebec as a distinct society
- Limits on federal spending power
- Guaranteed Quebec representation on the Supreme Court
- A constitutional veto right
- Increased control over immigration
There is no timeline for when talks, negotiations, and an eventual signing would take place.
“We're just saying let's talk and let's understand each other better because we've drifted apart somewhat in recent years,” said Couillard. “And if eventually we reach a common understanding then we'll maybe go to the next stage.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government will read the 200-page document, but is preemptively dismissing the Quebec government's plan to reopen the constitutional debate.
"You know my opinion on the Constitution. We're not reopening the Constitution," said the prime minister as he walked into Parliament Thursday morning.
Couillard said he isn’t discouraged by the remarks.
“I believe that once he will have read the report, he will see many positive elements in it and actually many common ideas that we share,” he said.
Critics said the reason Couillard has chosen to mention the document now is because his Liberal Party is facing a new threat: the rise of the Coalition Avenir Quebec.
With poll after poll showing the fervor for a separate Quebec has died, and with PQ leader Jean-Francois Lisée promising that, if elected, the PQ would not hold a referendum on sovereignty in its first mandate, support for the PQ has steadily declined.
The most recent surveys of public opinion show that the CAQ is neck and neck with the Liberals in popular support, and several political analysts say the CAQ has a strong chance of forming the next provincial government when the election is called next year.
Meanwhile Lisée said he is saluting Couillard for no longer pretending that everything is perfect in Quebec's relationship with the rest of Canada.
"The recognition that something is really broken in Canada, that lessens the power of Quebec, the health of Quebec, the ability of Quebec to take its own decisions. Now how he will fix that, I have no idea, and I'm looking forward to hearing that," said the PQ leader. “He chose to be flippant, inelegant and to show disregard for the chief of government of the Quebec nation in the worst possible way and in a sense he represents large portions of English Canadian reaction toward anything that comes from Quebec.”
To avoid the division and outright hostility that has characterized previous constitutional debates, Quebec's approach will be essentially a pedagogical one, focused on dialogue, persuasion and understanding.
Couillard has spent several years developing his thinking on the subject and drafting the 200-page founding document entitled "Quebecers: Our Way of Being Canadians," which lays out the government's position on Quebec's place within Canada.
When he became leader of the Quebec Liberals in 2013, Couillard -- a staunch federalist -- promised to reopen constitutional "discussions" with Canada in order to help the province "reintegrate into the Canadian family."
That goal appears to have been largely pushed aside -- until now.
Above all, Quebec hopes to break the taboo that has surrounded discussion of the Constitution since the 1995 sovereignty referendum, according to the document, which notes "Quebec and Canada seem ready for a paradigm shift" on this subject.
According to the document, which is being released in honour of Canada's 150th birthday, any successful talks must include Canada's official recognition of Quebec nationhood.
"While the political and constitutional context has changed since (the conditions were written), they remain a concrete illustration of the constitutional guarantees which must flow from an adequate recognition of the Quebec nation," Couillard says, some 30 years later.
But while the demands may be similar to those of previous governments, the approach is expected to be radically different.
The current government hopes to avoid the power struggles that characterized previous decades of Quebec-Ottawa relations by rediscovering the spirit of openness that prevailed between the two founding groups at Confederation, according to the document.
"We must work to re-establish what Quebecers have always wanted since 1867: a Canada that accepts them for who they are," reads one passage from the text, which was prepared by several people under the supervision of Jean-Marc Fournier, the minister responsible for Canadian relations.
The coming discussions could also include the demands of First Nations as well as other topics.
The government will promote asymmetrical federalism as well as "interculturalism," Quebec's alternative to multiculturalism which proposes celebrating diversity while maintaining a distinct francophone culture.
While the dialogue could eventually lead to a new round of constitutional negotiation, that is viewed as an end goal rather than a point of departure.
"The Quebec government is still determined that its demands may be eventually discussed and that we arrive at a win-win constitutional solution for all federal partners," reads the document.
To reach its aims, the Couillard government plans to build a "sustained presence" in the rest of Canada by participating in discussions with political groups, universities, business and social groups and by increasing its presence in both traditional and social media.
As a sign of the coming changes, the government is expected to make some structural changes and create Quebec-Canada units in some departments to ensure they participate in as many activities as possible in the rest of Canada.
With files from The Canadian Press