In this country, some things are set in stone: winter, taxes and whining about both. Over the years, one more has been added to the list: not changing the constitution to give Quebec any kind of special recognition.
That's why it was pretty obvious that when federal Labour Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn said to the Globe and Mail that it was time to reopen the constitution to recognize Quebec as a nation, this was no trial balloon. It was just one big gaffe from a minister looking for ways to gain more ground in this province for the Tories.
So it was no surprise that Stephen Harper, who was away in Bucharest, made sure that his minister would quickly backtrack. As for Jean Charest, he didn't take the story seriously for one minute.
Tories and Liberals repeated the same line: The "fruit just isn't ripe yet." So at the end of the day, everyone in Ottawa and Quebec City chalked this one up as a strange, belated April Fool's joke.
And this is how Canada is now the only democratic country in the world that views its own constitution as a Pandora's box no one wants to open up unless it's for some small, bilateral arrangement between Ottawa and a province.
Beyond the "fruit" metaphor, one thing has become a given: Quebec will not get any special recognition via the constitution. Not only would this be a non-starter in the rest of the country, but the Meech and Charlottetown accords showed that any failure is bound to awaken sovereignist sentiment. The near-loss of the No side in 1995 wrote the final chapter of that story.
Most Canadians outside Quebec see this impasse as acceptable. They seem convinced that Canada functions well enough without addressing the Quebec question again through constitutional means. Reality seems to agree with them: Support for sovereignty is now at a low of 35 per cent, according to the latest CROP poll. The Parti Québécois has also put aside its commitment to hold a referendum if it takes power, choosing instead a "national debate" on sovereignty.
Mario Dumont has also left the "Yes bus" - as Premier Jean Charest likes to call the sovereignty movement. Dumont turned the page on his association with the Yes side in 1995. But while Dumont criticized Charest for not jumping on Blackburn's idea, Dumont's own autonomist plank is ambiguous enough to make sure it wouldn't rekindle any Meech flames should he become premier one day.
The result is that granting Quebec a special status within Canada is out of the question. And so is sovereignty for some time. This means that for now, there's no renewed federalism and no sovereignty in sight. Forty-three years after Daniel Johnson Sr. penned his famed "egalité ou indépendance," this province has achieved neither. It's what I call a double impasse.
Ironically, the only party leader who is interested in reopening the constitution these days is Pauline Marois. With no more obligation to hold a referendum on sovereignty, the PQ's national council approved a new Quebec constitution within Canada. But it also voted on negotiating with Ottawa the patriation of certain powers such as culture and communication. And to do so "within the legal framework of Canada." Robert Bourassa called this sort of thing "cultural sovereignty."
No one knows what Marois would do if the federal government du jour tells her to go fly a kite. Would she do nothing? Would she hold a referendum on sovereignty? Or would she propose instead to hold a referendum even before going to Ottawa, not on sovereignty, but on asking for more powers within Canada?
In fact, when asking Charest why he wasn't taking Blackburn up on his offer, Marois said something even Bourassa would have agreed with: "Everything that allows Quebecers to have better means to develop themselves and to progress, we'll take all those means and powers that could be allotted to us."
Oh well. That makes one party leader in this country who wants to reopen the constitution.
But since it takes two to tango, she could find herself standing alone with her dance card.
It seems the only politician who wants to renew federalism is Marois
The rest of Canada recoils at the idea of giving Quebec any special recognition