[A full version of this article appears in a special edition of The Round Table: Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs on The Crown and Constitutional Reform.]
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau bluntly dismissed the Quebec government’s policy and stated ‘we are not opening the Constitution’. Other politicians and academics supportive of the prime minister’s position have argued that there is no appetite, either among political representatives or among the population at large, to restart any dialogue related to the constitution or the accommodation and recognition of Quebec within Canada.
This dismissal, however, jars with the positive vision of federal–provincial relations endorsed by Trudeau during the 2015 election campaign and after taking power. The lexicon adopted by the prime minister, which included emphasis on coordination, collaboration and engagement, heralded a new period and a shift in approach to intergovernmental relations, and, in certain ambits such as climate change, appeared to work well. Yet, the rebuff of the prime minister towards the Quebec government’s affirmation policy undermines Trudeau’s conciliatory approach towards federal–provincial relations. More importantly, however, the prime minister’s hesitance to let the constitutional genie out of the bottle is not just rooted in the historical trauma of previous attempts at constitutional reform, but illuminates a clash between the Trudeauite post-national vision of Canada versus the Quebec government’s plurinational understanding of the state.
In an interview shortly after his surprise victory in 2015, Trudeau detailed a ‘post-national’ vision for Canada, claiming that ‘there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada’. This attempt at forging a new model of belonging failed to elicit much critical reaction in Canada, yet was akin to the multicultural, albeit uninational view endorsed by his father. Trudeau’s post-national vision collides with what many Quebeckers see as the plurinational reality of the Canadian state.
Plurinationalism, however, has failed to take root in much of English-speaking Canada. According to Keating and Laforest, ‘the doctrine of Canada as a union of two founding peoples has gained little traction outside Quebec; instead Canada is seen as a union of equal provinces and of individual citizens’. It is for this reason, therefore, that a plurinational understanding of Canada is at the heart of the Quebec government’s affirmation policy. The policy is intended not only ultimately to restart debate on Quebec’s place within Canada, but also to share the hitherto predominantly French-Canadian interpretation of the state. As the document states, ‘there is no doubt that throughout its history, Canada has in fact been a plurinational federation’. The time has come, believes the Quebec government, to translate this rhetoric into political practice.
Over a year since the publication of Quebeckers: Our Way of Being Canadian, the document’s impact has been limited. The Quebec government has participated in a number of events and debates throughout Canada in order to elaborate further its position, but apart from Trudeau’s initial rebuff, the Federal government remains uninterested in re-engaging in constitutional debates. It is a truism that in Quebec, much like in the rest of Canada, constitutional politics is not a priority of most citizens, but while politicians such as Trudeau may believe the Quebec issue to be settled, it is clear that this is not the case in Quebec. Elected on a platform committed to reconciliation vis-à-vis the First Nations and indigenous people and advancing federal–provincial relations, Trudeau presented himself as the conciliatory candidate.
There is no doubt that compared with his predecessor, Stephen Harper, much has changed under the incumbent prime minister, but progress has been slow. Yet, while Trudeau remains committed to reconciliation with the First Nations, he has shown no enthusiasm for finally bringing Quebec into the constitutional fold. The scars of previous attempts at constitutional reform have yet to heal, but, as the Quebec government has made clear, the time has come to tackle Canada’s constitutional taboo. Quebec is ready to have this conversation, Canada should be, too.
[Paul Anderson is with Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, UK]