Earlier this month, Roy Romanow and John Whyte argued in The Globe and Mail that the House of Commons motion recognizing that the “Québécois” form a nation within a united Canada “poses serious risks to Canada's long-term stability and strength.” They call it 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.” I strongly disagree and find these comments a tad exaggerated, to say the least.
The motion presented by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which was supported by all of the leaders of the parties represented in the House of Commons, is not only innovative but highly respectful of Canada's federative principles. It is further testimony to Canada's capacity to show consideration for, and encourage, its inherent differences and its ability to evolve in positive and inclusive terms. It also represents a constructive gesture toward those federalist Quebeckers who felt disappointed by the unilateral patriation of the Constitution in 1982 and the demise of the Meech Lake accord in 1990.
Quebec does, indeed, constitute a nation according to sociological and political definitions — sociologically, because Quebeckers form a group that is aware and proud of its identity and unity, and politically, since Quebeckers live in the only self-governed, French-speaking majority society in North America. The fact that Quebec forms a nation does not, on the other hand, preclude in any way the existence of a larger and unified Canadian nation.
The Harper motion neither splinters our citizenship nor weakens our shared determination to actively take part in the evolution of our federation. The notion of a Canada whereby the provinces and territories are not the mere executors of the wishes of the central government is considered by some as a menace to our Canadian identity. Somehow, this vision is not shared by most Canadians and is not how the Fathers of Confederation conceived matters in 1867. In Canada, there is still room today for cross-country initiatives — and a national vision per se — provided they are achieved through dialogue, compromise and consensus with all the federative partners, especially when the matters discussed concern jurisdictions granted exclusively to the provinces by our Constitution.
As a purely political statement, this motion will not dramatically change the nature of Canada and decentralize it to the point of insignificance. It will neither alter nor diminish Canada's political reality and organization. It simply reflects Quebec's specificity and its desire to protect and promote what makes it a unique society in North America. A fact that, let us not forget, is the reason why our country defined itself as a federation back in 1867. Canada remains the same, but the motion strengthens Quebec's position within it, as the recognition of aboriginal peoples in the Constitution did for them back in 1982. Strangely enough, Mr. Romanow and Mr. Whyte seem to view this last deed as a negative.
Quebec's uniqueness — which is based on its language, culture, private law, institutions, way of life and other national characteristics — is a source of enrichment for Canada rather than a barrier to its unity. The formal recognition of this specificity is the best way to reduce support for Quebec's sovereignty in the long run.
The Catalonian experience is interesting and merits further attention. Even if Spain is not entirely federal, it displays federative features that make it a quasi-federation, one of these features being Madrid's administrative relations with so-called historical, autonomy-seeking, regions such as Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia. Last summer, the central government amended its constitution to recognize the fact that Catalonians considered themselves to be part of the nation of Catalonia, a nation within the Spanish state. A recent article in The Globe and Mail revealed that, because of this openness, “leaders of separatist parties acknowledged ... that the separate Catalan nation is a less likely proposition now that the word ‘nation' has been applied to Catalonia in Spanish law.”
The Parti Québécois's and the Bloc Québécois's confused reaction to the Harper motion is an indication that the separatist movement in Quebec is decidedly destabilized by this declaration and will have to redefine its strategy to influence a Quebec electorate whose priorities lie not in separation but elsewhere.
By accepting Quebec's sociological and political differences instead of denying them, and by transcribing these differences in terms of flexible solutions in our political system, we can avoid needless and counterproductive societal conflicts. Our government will pursue its efforts to convince those who are skeptical about these objectives, regardless of what Quebec separatists seek to achieve. The evolution of our federation should not be held hostage by the aspirations of the Quebec separatist movement or by those doomsayers who cunningly use the secessionist menace in Quebec as a way to curtail Canada's development.
Let me conclude by evoking another international example, that of the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Tony Blair mentioned, when unveiling a white paper on Scotland in 1997, that “Scotland is a proud historic nation in the United Kingdom.” The Queen, during an address to the Scottish Parliament in 2002, said: “In this age of new constitutional relationships — of unity based on diversity — I value the distinctive contribution that Scotland is making to strengthen the bonds that link the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and Europe.”
In Canada, we should be more influenced, and inspired, by this attitude of confidence in the future instead of falling prey to our fears that condemn us to a perpetual standstill.
Benoît Pelletier is Quebec's Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs.