Reopening a constitutional can of worms

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

It is an illusion to believe that constitutional reform, and the recognition of Quebec as a nation, could ensure a federalist victory if there were another referendum on sovereignty. Michael Ignatieff, one of the leading contenders in the race for the Liberal leadership, made a dangerous error of judgment when he promised to reopen this Pandora's Box. The process of reforming the Constitution to accommodate Quebec would be long and agonizing, probably doomed from the start and, whatever the result, it would provide more fuel for the sovereigntist camp.
Either the operation would fail and become Meech Lake and Charlottetown all over again, with the sovereigntists reviving the victimization scenario and claiming that Quebec had been rejected once again, or - and this is the "best" hypothesis - after years of protracted negotiations and painful debates, some kind of accord would be achieved, but the resulting compromise would not match Quebec's original demands, and the sovereigntists would proclaim that it is "too little, too late." Even the "soft nationalists" would see no cause for rejoicing.
A case in point is the jurisdiction over manpower training. For years, sovereigntists claimed this was a key policy area that should be exclusively under Quebec's control. But as soon as this jurisdiction was transferred to Quebec, far from greeting the move as a victory, the sovereigntists just stopped talking about it and changed their platform to call for something else (these days it is the solution to the "fiscal imbalance").
Most of those who followed the failed attempts at constitutional reforms reacted with horror at the idea that the country would once again go through a trauma like Meech or Charlottetown. Actually, the scenario would be much worse, for the deep currents that led to the demise of the Meech Lake accord are even stronger now. The idea that Quebec could have a special status ingrained in the Constitution was extremely unpopular in 1990. It is now anathema.
To make things worse, Mr. Ignatieff now uses the concept of "nation," which is much more explosive than the relatively innocuous concept of "distinct society" contained in the Meech Lake accord. In French, the word "nation" is often used sociologically. But in English, it is usually a synonym for "country." Throwing this concept into the political arena would undoubtedly provoke a huge anti-Quebec backlash and a flurry of vicious anti-Quebec rhetoric - something that would provide fresh ammunition for the sovereigntists.
The concept is also illogical. If, as Mr. Ignatieff says, Quebec and the aboriginal reserves are "nations," what exactly is the rest of Canada? Is it a "nation" in the sociological sense as well? Would it be defined by the English language? If so, would the French-speaking minorities be considered part of the "English-Canadian nation"? And what about the many communities that are not of British origin? As Stéphane Dion rightly said, this line of thought leads to a battle of political egos, some parts of the country being "nations" while the larger part would be an undefined mush.
But let's suppose, for the sake of the discussion, that some kind of agreement would emerge from years of debilitating and divisive constitutional talks. Quebec would end up paying very dearly for the symbolic recognition of its special status as a "nation." It would undoubtedly see its clout greatly reduced by a fully fledged reform of the Senate (as this would certainly be on the agenda to accommodate the West).
All the provinces and the territories, all the pressure groups and the various lobbies, would join the fray, demanding their own piece of the pie, from the recognition of property rights to provisions to protect the environment to the rights of animals, and so on.
Then the agreement would have to be adopted by the required number of provinces and be put to a referendum that would probably be a repetition of the failed vote on the Charlottetown accord in 1992.
Only someone who doesn't know much about Canada's contemporary political history could entertain the idea of walking into such a swamp.

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