Is the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms the right time to launch new constitutional negotiations in this country? Absolutely not. That Mario Dumont of Action democratique du Quebec would even propose the idea reveals that his capacity for political manoeuvring is much greater than his grasp on reality.
The Charter turns 25 today, and amid all the hoopla it's easy to forget that Canada's constitutional impasse is just as old - and just as entrenched.
A mass of political myth now encrusts the events that led to the adoption of Canada's "patriated" constitution, which had the Charter tacked on to it. Pro-sovereignty forces like to speak of the "night of the long knives" in November 1981, when the premiers - except Rene Levesque - agreed on the constitutional deal that led, five months later, to the birth of the Charter. (The use of that "long knives" phrase - borrowed from a bloody 1934 purge of Adolf Hitler's critics within the Nazi party - is grotesque and shameful in this context.)
Today, some Quebecers - such as former Trudeau minister Marc Lalonde, speaking last weekend - find the constitutional status quo just fine. But in some circles, the refusal to accord Quebec a veto back then still rankles. When Andre Boisclair spoke during March's election campaign about Quebec's "exclusion" from the constitution in 1981-82, some people were reminded of Osama bin Laden bemoaning "the tragedy of Andalusia" of 500 years ago. Still, there's no denying that for many in Quebec, the issue remains a fresh wound.
Oddly, however, the Charter that was the centrepiece of the constitutional reform is, survey results suggest, more popular in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada. That is possibly because under the Charter, the Quebec government has been assured it has the right to protect the French language.
Applying the Charter, the Supreme Court has overruled some aspects of Quebec language law over the years, but has upheld and reaffirmed the central provisions, one might say the spirit, of Bill 101. Our old colleague Graham Fraser, now Official Languages Commissioner of Canada, noted yesterday "English and French belong to all Canadians and the Charter has accelerated a process to make this claim a reality." The Charter, in odd partnership with Bill 101, has made French more secure.
The Charter has also opened the door to legalized abortion and to same-sex marriage, to name just two policy realities more popular in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada. (Those who argue the Charter has usurped Parliament's role must be careful: On those issues, at least, it's more precise to say Parliament has abdicated its role.)
It will be interesting to see if future court cases about reasonable accommodation reduce Quebecers' enthusiasm for the Charter.
But for now, at least, the people of Quebec embrace the Charter, while Quebec's political elite remains truculent, nursing their antique and threadbare grievance about the manner of the 1982 constitution's birth.
Enter Dumont, who never met a dispute he couldn't take advantage of. As a surging political force in Quebec, the ADQ leader says he might be willing to put Quebec's signature on the 1982 constitution, provided Prime Minister Stephen Harper agrees to a new amendment somehow limiting federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction, such as education and health.
Quebec is bound by Canada's fundamental law with or without signing a document. Quebec's approval would be purely symbolic - which is not to say it would be unimportant.
But political realities make the potential cost of any new constitutional round far, far higher than the potential benefit. Brian Mulroney's roll of the constitutional dice nearly wrecked the country. Any talk of new constitutional tinkering would merely invite those who want Quebec out of Canada to fan the embers back into a roaring flame.
And that's before we brace ourselves for the cacophony of special pleading that would begin, from every point of the political compass, at the first hint that the constitutional swag bag was going to be reopened. From Danny Williams to Maude Barlow, everyone with a soapbox would be up on it demanding recognition of victimhood, needs, historical legitimacy, special status ...
Stephane Dion quickly warned Harper to stay away from Dumont's little shell game. We agree completely. At a time when federal-provincial relations are generally smooth (never mind Williams the Newfoundland premier), the prime minister should apply to the constitution the wise old adage that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
It ain't broke, so don't fix constitution
(The use of that "long knives" phrase - borrowed from a bloody 1934 purge of Adolf Hitler's critics within the Nazi party - is grotesque and shameful in this context.)