Ignatieff hits a nerve in Quebec

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

With his recent call to resume efforts to find constitutional accommodation with Quebec, Michael Ignatieff has predictably sparked more outrage than support for his bid for the Liberal leadership, at least outside Quebec.
But in the province, his position has attracted some high-profile endorsements. The weekend before last, Marc Garneau, the Liberal star candidate in Quebec in the last federal election, rallied to Ignatieff's view. In an open letter to newspapers, the former astronaut urged Canada to enshrine Quebec's status as a nation in the Constitution.
Like Ignatieff, Garneau followed the divisive Meech and Charlottetown debates from a distance. Bob Rae, who had a front-row seat on both episodes, has argued that his rival's absence from Canada over that stormy period accounts for his poor appreciation of the perils involved in a new constitutional adventure.
Stephane Dion, who has also waded into the debate, feels that there is no reason not to let sleeping dogs lie as Canada is "a country that works well in practice if not in theory."
But in his open letter, Garneau takes issue with the notion that those who feel that the time has come to talk again about the Constitution are inspired by naivete and ignorance. He argues on the contrary that it was his hard-earned experience as a defeated Liberal candidate in Quebec in the recent election that convinced him of the absolute necessity of pursuing the constitutional file.
Garneau writes that he started out sharing views that were largely similar to those of Dion and Rae. But that, he says, was because he was getting his impressions of Quebec second-hand through the English-language national media, something he now describes as "living in a bubble." Having had time to see for himself, he is convinced that the greater risk is to continue to shrug off the constitutional aspirations of Quebecers.
That does not mean Rae does not have a point when he warns that the decks are stacked against a constitutional breakthrough. One can only assume Premier Jean Charest shares that view. The premier was prompt to call the Prime Minister to order last spring when Stephen Harper waffled on whether Quebec was a nation. But he has studiously avoided endorsing Ignatieff's recent overtures.
But, with respect to Dion, neither does it follow that all is well in Canada given the current constitutional predicament.
In Dion's Canada, two of the three national parties - including his own - are absent from Alberta and from much of francophone Quebec. For more than a decade, half of Dion's fellow francophone Quebecers have been voting for a federal party whose main goal is the dissolution of Canada's political union. Meanwhile, under a premier whose federalist credentials are impeccable, Quebec is operating on the periphery of the social union of the federation.
According to Statistics Canada, Alberta's economy is growing at a rate comparable with China's. As a result, Canadians are migrating to the West in ever greater numbers. The economic heart of the federation may be beating to the sound of the economy of the West but its political head remains resolutely buried in Central Canadian sand.
The Constitution as it now stands ensures that Western Canada plays under its weight in the national institutions. New Brunswick, with a population of 750,000, is guaranteed more Senate seats than Alberta (3.3 million) or British Columbia (4.3 million). A similar problem prevents the representation of those provinces in the Commons from keeping up with their growing population.
These days, the Prime Minister is bending over backwards to reform the Senate without opening the Constitution. Ironically, one of the consequences of Harper's attempts to have an elected Senate would be to inject more legitimacy into an institution within which his electoral base is condemned to be under-represented.
Overall, the current regime is set up in such a way that the provinces that depend on the rest of the federation to make ends meet have a bigger voice on the governance of the country than some of those who foot the bills.
The only way to address this dysfunction would be to amend the Constitution. But if, as Dion claims, the lack of modern national institutions is not preventing Canada from living up to its full potential, it may be because Parliament is less and less relevant to its national life. In a normal world, that should be a concern for those who are vying to lead the country.
Chantal Hebert's national affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. chebert @ thestar.ca.

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