Quebecers are nervous about collapsing or crumbling overpasses. We're fretting about algae in our lakes and sewage in our rivers. We are anxious about greenhouse gases. Many of us are cranky about municipal mergers. We are concerned about reasonable accommodation. We worry about medical wait times. We're stressed about municipal finances. We feel depressed about the treatment of seniors. We're unhappy about university underfunding, and we are displeased about poor mass transit.
Every one of those items is wholly, or in large part, a provincial government responsibility. So naturally, Benoît Pelletier thinks this is the right time for Quebec to propose a constitutional amendment about what it means to be a nation. This is precisely the sort of thinking that has made the Quebec Liberal Party what it is today.
Fortunately, Premier Jean Charest rapidly contradicted his minister. It was another example of how Pelletier, the man responsible for Quebec's relations with the rest of Canada, seems to live in a strange ivory tower.
He called Monday for a new "charter of open federalism," to be entrenched in the constitution of Canada. This document would, apparently, bind Ottawa in various ways while committing the provinces to, umm, nothing. Specifically it would pledge Ottawa to limit spending in areas of provincial jurisdiction. And it would spell out, somehow, what that "Quebecers are a nation within Canada" business really means.
Sometimes, the constitutional position of the Quebec Liberal Party - or at least of Pelletier - seems to be dictated solely by the positions of other parties, and by party-preference poll results. If he is going to continue in his present job, Pelletier would do well to recall that just last spring, Charest was campaigning on the basis of triumphant federalism - the federal government had recognized Quebecers as a nation and federal money was flowing. Support for independence was at a low ebb.
Sure enough, on election night, the Parti Québécois slipped to third place, and voters, more interested in other issues (see above) were obviously sufficiently content with Mario Dumont's incoherent "autonomy" formula on Quebec's future. Accepting that much vagueness on that file suggests that voters nowadays see other issues as considerably more important.
It wasn't being Canadian that knocked the Liberal Party down to third place among francophone voters; it was being out of touch on everyday issues. Charest seems to understand that. The premier has taken an alert interest in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's views on limiting the federal spending power to areas of actual federal jurisdiction, but has very sensibly stopped short of talking about amending the constitution, which would demand the consent of seven provinces totalling half of the Canadian population, and so is utterly unlikely.
We're not sure what drives Pelletier, exactly. In June, he was going on about how Canada was not a true confederation because Canada was created by British law. In that, he was ignoring the fact that the deals that brought about the British North America Act were made on this side of the Atlantic. When he grumbled in May that any cut in Quebec's share of House of Commons seats "is a question that goes to the heart of balance in the federation" he seemed to be claiming special rights for Quebec's stagnant share of the Canadian population. He has demanded previously that Quebec's nation status be put in the constitution. He just can't resist stirring the constitutional pot.
We understand that many in the Liberal Party feel they must say something - anything - to "prove" that they, too, are nationalists, and not merely "the party of the anglos."
But to our mind, Quebec nationalism has for many recently become more an idealistic dream than a practical goal. The premier has got this one right: If the governing party takes care of the issues that really affect people's daily lives, the constitutional order will take care of itself.