We have seen this movie before. It opens quietly and seemingly innocuously enough, some years after a sovereignist defeat in a Quebec referendum, with a campaign speech in the province by a federal Conservative leader.
He promises that if the Conservatives replace the Liberals in power, it will herald a new era of political reconciliation between this province and the rest of the country.
He holds out the possibility of constitutional change addressing at least part of Quebec's latest list of requirements, when conditions are right.
The speech, which contains at least one ringing phrase that captures headlines and will not soon be forgotten in this province, pleases Quebecers. In the ensuing election, the Conservatives gain seats in Quebec and form the new government in Ottawa.
A year or two later, a federalist Liberal government in Quebec, seeing an opportunity to strike a blow against its nationalist opponents, decides to take up the Conservative prime minister on his campaign promise.
Its minister of Canadian intergovernmental affairs, who also happens to be a constitutional expert, goes public with a list of conditions, including constitutional recognition of special status for this province.
And soon, disaster begins to unfold.
The first time we saw this movie, it opened in 1984 in Sept-Îles, with Brian Mulroney promising in a speech (written by somebody named Lucien Bouchard) to make it possible for Quebec to sign the 1982 constitution "with honour and enthusiasm."
The Conservatives went on to sweep Quebec, winning the election. The following year, Robert Bourassa returned to power in Quebec City at the head of a Liberal government. And the year after that, his minister, Gil Rémillard, delivered a speech to fellow constitutional experts in Mont-Gabriel in which he presented Quebec's conditions for signing the constitution, including its recognition as a "distinct society."
This led in succession to a "Quebec round" of constitutional negotiations, the adoption of the Meech Lake accord, its subsequent failure amid bitter accusations that Quebec had been betrayed, the revival of the Quebec sovereignty movement and its near-victory in the 1995 referendum.
And now we seem to be seeing a strikingly similar movie that has started out following the same sequence of events. This week, we reached the point at which the Quebec Liberal minister who is also a constitutional expert states terms on behalf of his government.
History never repeats itself exactly, so some details have changed. Now the Conservative prime minister is named Stephen Harper, his Quebec campaign speech was delivered in Quebec City in December, 2005, and its catchphrase was "open federalism."
What Quebec minister Benoît Pelletier wants, ultimately, is constitutional recognition of this province's "specificity." And the nationalist opposition against which he's eager to score points is not so much the sovereignist Parti Québécois as Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec.
This week, Canadian Press reported that Pelletier wants to put pressure on Harper to make good on his campaign promise to "recognize provincial autonomy as well as the special cultural and institutional responsibilities of the Quebec government."
Pelletier told me he wants Harper to adopt the "charter of open federalism" that he promised, limiting federal spending power to intervene in provincial jurisdictions as well as recognizing Quebec's specificity. Eventually, this charter could be enshrined in the constitution.
Pelletier indicated he wants to use the issue to restore the polarization between sovereignists and federalists and force Dumont to choose sides. "We think he's a sovereignist," he said.
His boss, Premier Jean Charest, sounded less enthusiastic about putting pressure on his ally Harper, saying again that "the fruit is not ripe" for another round of constitutional negotiations. Apparently, he remembers how this movie turned out the first time.
But Pelletier told me he expects the issue to be addressed by one of the task forces drafting the party's next election platform, which are to report next month. This showing of the movie might not be over yet.
Son of Meech
We've seen this movie before, and it turns out badly