Harper’s in a unique position to solve national unity question
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands a chance of achieving what his six predecessors never managed and that is to end the alienation of Quebec within Confederation and finally bring that province into the 1982 Canadian Constitution.
If so, he will at once undermine the Quebec separation movement—or at least, enfeeble it, making it irrelevant—and go down in our nation’s history as a kingmaker.
In doing so, he will also end Western alienation and eradicate friction between Ottawa and other provinces, too.
Recall that in 1982, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was unable to get Quebec’s signature on his Constitution.
French-Canadians detested Trudeau because of his assaults on their provincial rights. The War Measures Act, in which thousands of innocent Quebecers had been rounded up, was still a bitter memory.
We would have actually been better off sticking with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights than going with Trudeau’s gambit of an American-style constitution that was a godsend to money-hungry lawyers and malcontents.
The iconoclastic Trudeau went, and Joe Clark came in, and quickly went, and Trudeau returned, but he wasn’t in any position to solve the Quebec dilemma.
Then we had the embarrassing short stint of John Turner—almost as embarrassing as that of Clark—with no time for any attempt at constitutional reconciliation.
Come 1984 and Brian Mulroney was in power with the largest majority in Canadian history since Diefenbaker’s 1958 landslide. Mulroney tried twice, with the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Agreement.
What stuck in the throats of many in English Canada—particularly Western Canada—was the accords would basically have recognized Quebec as a “distinct society.”
Let’s be realistic here—with its own language, own culture, own judicial system and own educational system, Quebec is a far different province than any other province.
After completing the herculean task of achieving the free- trade pact with the U.S., Mulroney was pretty confident he could get provincial agreement for Meech Lake. He even made his now infamous comment about “rolling the dice.” But it slowly unravelled as the deadline approached.
The Charlottetown Accord actually went to a nationwide referendum and despite all political parties and special-interest groups from business to unions backing it, went down to dramatic defeat.
Now, in retrospect—and so many issues and situations become far more clear in retrospect—had Mulroney been from English Canada—and particularly Western Canada—he may well have won with either Meech Lake or Charlottetown. Trouble was, Mulroney was a Quebecer.
Not to be trusted.
Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, with the searing history of past constitutional debacles fresh in their minds, and again, both from Quebec, never considered opening up this can of worms again.
So why should Harper ?
Simple: Frustration in Quebec with Ottawa is again at an all-time high, and so is western alienation. Premier Jean Charest quite likely faces defeat at the hands of the Parti Quebecois come the next provincial election. Charest desperately needs to make the PQ an important force, and that of the federal Bloc Quebecois, too.
Both Alberta and B.C. are chafing at the bit to get back their provincial rights taken from them by successive Liberal governments from Lester Pearson in the 1960s onward.
Harper has a historic opening. The Conservatives shattered conventional thinking on Jan. 23 when they won 25% of the popular vote in Quebec, a wedge that looks as if it’s becoming a foundation on which the party will win perhaps half of Quebec’s 75 seats come the next election.
Look at this scenario: Harper offers every province from Newfoundland to Quebec to Alberta to B.C. an option: Take back from Ottawa whatever provincial rights you want. If say, some provinces, such as Saskatchewan, want to leave those rights with Ottawa, let them do it.
Harper can do this because, unlike Mulroney, he’s not only from English Canada, he’s from Western Canada. He can be trusted on the issue.
Quebec and Alberta would jump at this offer. A new, more dynamic federalism would be born. Both Quebec separatism and western alienation would be dead.
And vibrant Canada would be alive again.