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Quebec Premier Legault is pushing for more provincial powers amid sagging polls

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Quebec Premier Francois Legault meet, in Quebec City, Monday, June 10, 2024. (Jacques Boissinot, The Canadian Press) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Quebec Premier Francois Legault meet, in Quebec City, Monday, June 10, 2024. (Jacques Boissinot, The Canadian Press)
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Quebec's premier says he wants to find new powers to boost his province's autonomy within Canada, but experts are keeping their expectations in check.

Facing disappointing polls and a simmering conflict with the federal government over immigration, Quebec Premier Francois Legault last week announced the creation of a new committee to study the province's rights and enhance its powers within the federation.

The committee is tasked with examining federal intrusion into areas of provincial jurisdiction.

"The federal government has intensified a worrying trend toward centralization and encroachment," Legault said Friday during a speech in the legislature with strong nationalist overtones. "We must continue to strengthen Quebec's autonomy, preserve its rights and obtain more powers in fundamental areas."

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the move as a political response to the rise in popularity of the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois, which has been leading in provincial polls since the fall.

"I know Mr. Legault is under a fair bit of pressure from the PQ right now," Trudeau told reporters after a meeting with Legault in Quebec City. "There's nothing inherently threatening about a province deciding to look at ways of improving our democracy."

Charles Breton, executive director of the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation at the Institute for Research on Public Policy, said the committee's creation is mostly about Quebec's internal politics. "I think the prime minister is entirely correct to not be too worried,' he said in an interview Tuesday.

Breton said some of the issues the committee has been instructed to study are "more political than anything," including federal spending in areas of provincial policy.

On Friday, Legault insisted Ottawa's intrusion into provincial matters "limits the right of the Quebec nation to make its own choices."

It's "absolutely true," Breton said, that nationally Ottawa has used its spending power to direct provincial policy, including through federal child care and dental care programs. But in those cases, Breton pointed out, Quebec has been able to opt out of the national programs and seek compensation.

"So I'm not sure what they're complaining about, in a way," he said.

The announcement of the new committee came ahead of Monday's meeting between Trudeau and Legault to discuss immigration. Legault says the 560,000 temporary immigrants in the province are putting an enormous strain on housing and health care. He has demanded Quebec be given full power over immigration -- at one point threatening a referendum on the issue -- and the new autonomy committee has been instructed to study that demand.

But on Monday, Trudeau offered the Legault government $750 million to help ease the pressure from temporary immigrants in the province. It was less than the $1 billion Legault had asked for, but Breton said the money should help to "de-escalate the conflict."

Daniel Beland, a political scientist at McGill University, compared the committee to Alberta's Fair Deal panel, struck in 2019 by former premier Jason Kenney to examine whether that province was getting shortchanged by Ottawa. That committee, he said, was helpful in crafting the Alberta government's agenda. "But the report itself I don't think had a very strong impact in terms of swaying the federal government in one way or another," he said.

Beland said in an interview that Legault has struggled to increase Quebec's powers, including over immigration. "He's been accused by the opposition parties of failing in that regard," he said. "This is a reflection of the fact that Francois Legault needs to please the nationalist base and needs to show that he really can defend Quebec."

But it will be a "tall order" for the committee to tackle such a broad mandate with recommendations due on Oct. 15, Beland said.

The committee is comprised mainly of academics and will be co-chaired by Sebastien Proulx, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, and Guillaume Rousseau, a law professor who helped draft Quebec's contentious secularism law, Bill 21.

"I'm going to be looking for something that's actionable and I'm not sure that's what we'll see," Breton said. "I think it's useful from time to time to do exercises like this one. I don't see that as a useless committee. Not at all. But I would also not make too much out of it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2024.

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