Federalists in Quebec find their voice

Fourteen personalities come together, each proposing a vision of Canada as an opportunity to be grasped

"Reconquérir le Canada"

In Quebec, a commonly shared vision of our history was expressed by then-Bloc Québécois MP Suzanne Tremblay: "There are two founding peoples," she told the Commons. "We arrived here before you. You conquered us in 1760, you reconquered us in 1980 by the first referendum, and you reconquered in 1995 by the second referendum. But we will conquer you with the third referendum."
A book published last week titled Reconquérir le Canada: Un Nouveau Projet pour la Nation Québécoise, speaks of reconquering to express an opposite vision. Instead of presenting the Québécois as constantly victimized by Canada, 14 Quebec personalities come together and each proposes a vision of Canada as an opportunity to be grasped.
"We owe it to ourselves, as francophone Quebeckers, to conceive differently our relation with the rest of Canada," writes Frédéric Bérard, of the University of Montreal's law faculty. "We must emancipate ourselves from the stumbling blocks of our past and, above all, from the climate of resentment, paranoia and bitterness that has driven us."
Journalist Lysiane Gagnon once observed that, around the table when politics are discussed, those who fall silent are Quebec's federalists. This plea for a more receptive attitude toward Canada is an event. The writers include former justice minister Martin Cauchon, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoît Pelletier and former astronaut Marc Garneau.
The instigator was André Pratte, La Presse's chief editorial writer, who contributes the most stimulating essay. To read him is to experience a blast of fresh air. He blows away consecrated myths that populate Quebec's countryside with bogeymen and mirages.
"Few federalists dare to state publicly that being part of Canada offers Quebec unquestionable advantages," Mr. Pratte writes. "The rare few who say so loud and clear are mostly active in federal politics; they're considered by their fellow citizens as, at best, oddballs, at worst as 'vendus' [sell-outs]."
He dares to excoriate all three parties at the National Assembly: "Members of the provincial Liberals, the Parti Québécois and Action Démocratique du Québec sing in chorus that Quebec needs more powers to develop, that all actions by the federal government are necessarily damaging for Quebec and must be resisted by our [Quebec's] national government." Their real problem, he maintains, is their faulty vision. "That, and not federalism or the 'Anglais,' is what prevents modern Quebec from advancing; it leads to sterile debates, to shirking responsibility and it feeds a victim complex."
Martin Cauchon was a bright light of Jean Chrétien's government. Paul Martin feared a potential rival so Mr. Cauchon resigned his seat in 2004. But he will likely stage a comeback.
He analyzes how the Constitution evolved from 1867 to now, with a growing recognition of the provinces, even since the 1982 patriation of the Constitution against a vote in the National Assembly. For its three parties, that was an intolerable affront.
"In my opinion," Mr. Cauchon writes, "the fact that Quebec did not sign the Constitution resulted mainly in feeding political debate, often to the delight of the sovereigntists. As for myself, I consider it imperative for Canadian unity that Quebec adhere fully to the 1982 Constitution." Quebec should sign.
Jean Leclair, University of Montreal professor of constitutional law, dissects the myth of exclusive nationalism that demands a total, undivided adherence. "From this perspective, a people can have only one common culture. Culture, and more specifically cultural identity, encompasses all the elements of human activity, be they social, religious, linguistic, political and economic." To claim plural identities, such as Canadian and Québécois, would be considered a heresy.
Benoît Pelletier, in his essay, clearly espouses exactly the myth of cultural identity decried by Mr. Leclair. "The identity of a society is what makes up its very essence," he writes. "The nation is at once soul and body." He inherits the tradition of Quebec's previous ultra-Catholic era that considered the nation to have a "collective soul."
Marie Bernard-Meunier was successively Canada's ambassador to UNESCO, to Holland and Germany. She draws on her experience with another federation, Germany, and a partial federation, the European Union, to critique the Canadian federation. Canada lacks an upper house that really represents the constituent states of the federation. "In Canada, the provinces have no institutionalized role at the federal level." A solution, she suggests, would be for senators to be elected. Stephen Harper presently proposes exactly that.
She criticizes the provincial Liberals. "Quebec's federalists are unlikely to convince their fellow citizens to commit to federalism if their sole obsession is to appear as nationalistic as the PQ or as autonomist as the ADQ, or even more nationalist or autonomist than they are." And she cites a condition for a federation to succeed: the commitment of the constituent states to the whole: "What will not work is to claim to want to remain within Canada while at the same time pursuing only one's own interest."
This book needs to find a publisher who will bring it out in English. It opens a whole new vista for a neo-federalism in Quebec after almost five decades of unremitting deadlock.
WILLIAM JOHNSON, Author and a former president of Alliance Quebec

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