The House of Commons resolution recognizing the Québécois as a nation poses serious risks to Canada's long-term stability and strength. Those who believe that the issues of the resolution's meaning and wisdom will soon pass are overly optimistic. It is like a Trojan horse, carrying within it a highly decentralized view of Canada where one's geographic fate in the country will determine whether one gets clean air and water, child care and timely health care. The resolution is a mistake, and the defence of it rests on flawed assumptions.
First, it is a mistake to argue that the resolution is not part of our constitutional context. Constitutions are not constructed entirely through formal texts. Constitutional norms are created by judicial decisions, political practices, conventions, changing social contexts and shifts in deep political value. For instance, rules for amending the Constitution, federal social spending through a federal spending power, federal disallowance of provincial legislation, the use of federal criminal law to regulate matters far beyond traditional criminal justice, the disuse of the override clause, and the Clarity Act's restraints on secessionist politics are all instances of new constitutional realities, not expressed in the constitutional text, that come from a wide range of political and judicial actions. After all, nations could not tolerate the paralysis that would result without a dynamic understanding of constitutional order.
While it is true that the resolution is not an act of Parliament, it is equally true that it has constituted a new reality with respect to Canada's basic political organization.
Second, giving recognition to a nation "within a united Canada" does not mean that the declaration can be retracted if Quebec were again to initiate a process of national dissolution. In law, the normative purpose of language comes from that which is new, not from that which confirms the present context. This resolution does not reinforce Canada's unity. And it most certainly does not help promote its unity. Its sole innovation is recognition of a new nation, expressing a sense of Quebec's place in Canada that secessionists will find useful.
Is Canada based on the principle of federalism, adopted to accommodate two founding settler peoples and the merger of (at first) four colonial political communities? Or is Canada, in essence, a binational pact? Of course, we cannot betray our history of different settler communities, but the root legal paradigm of the Canadian nation, carefully constructed in the Constitution Act, 1867, and repeatedly confirmed by the Supreme Court (including decisions in the Senate reference, the patriation reference, the Quebec-veto reference and the secession reference) is the principle of federalism - two orders of government, each with a vital role in expressing consent for new constitutional arrangements.
Secessionists can now argue, however, that the new defining reality of Canada is found in the nation resolution. It has placed at the heart of Canadian constitutionalism the relationship between two nations - Canada and Quebec. This is an extremely worrisome development.
Third, while it has become fashionable to use "nation" as a way of describing distinct ethno-cultural populations, the everyday meaning of the word describes political societies. It signifies a group of people, usually in a defined territory, with political connection to each other. When the House of Commons recognized a nation, it was not just making a sociological utterance. It presented a new political description of Canada.
Fourth, recognizing "nation" for the Québécois, not Quebec, does not weaken the resolution's political significance. Context is everything and this one-upmanship of the Bloc Québécois is anything but harmless. When we say we recognize nationhood, we are not just saying we recognize that there is a group of people who are culturally bound to each other (in fact, they are not). We recognize a stronger form of political community. Implicitly, we strengthen the political agent for that group. This is precisely how, since 1982, the constitutional recognition of aboriginal peoples has been read.
Finally, the resolution tracks the core idea behind the Harper government's "open federalism," in which Canadian federalism is being redefined to greatly empower provinces. This may be its most immediate impact. From our nation's early days, the federal level has always taken responsibility for issues that affected all Canadians, but open federalism pushes back to the provinces the task of sustaining national well-being. Its idea is that Canada should be a nation of associate states, each deciding what its population deserves in terms of its own social, economic and cultural environment. There is no longer a place for a national vision of being Canadian based on national citizenship. Therefore, we should not be surprised at this development; the Prime Minister has consistently argued for this view.
The resolution was presented as cleverness - doing something to please Quebec nationalist sentiment without actually making any real concession. In reality, it is a significant piece of the project to change Canada, to turn it into a highly decentralized nation.
Roy Romanow is a former premier of Saskatchewan. John Whyte is a former Saskatchewan deputy minister of justice. Both were engaged in the 1979-1982 constitutional patriation process.
Stephen Harper traded the peaceable kingdom for a Trojan horse
John Whyte and Roy Romanow