When it comes to Quebec, Ignatieff just doesn't get it

Liberal candidate's policy on Quebec nation simply ignores 30 years of history

[e-mail this page to a friend]

The Gazette, Friday, September 8, 2006

When it comes to Quebec, Michael Ignatieff is either completely tone deaf, or he just doesn't get it.

He continuously bandies around loaded words and terms without any apparent consideration for their context or consequences.

First, there his was musing last week that "we want to avoid civil war" as an outcome of a third referendum, though he was quick to add he had every confidence we would avoid it.

Why, you'd think he was talking about the former Yugoslavia or some place torn by ethnic cleansing.

Now in his vision statement for the Liberal leadership campaign, Ignatieff recognizes Quebec as "a nation" but then adds "it has all the powers necessary to make its society flourish and grow."

Well, either it means something or it doesn't.

For Ignatieff, it clearly means rhetorical ruffles and flourishes, signifying nothing.

As in this declaration at the unveiling of his campaign manifesto: "I speak for all those who say that Quebec is my nation but Canada is my country."

This is a variation of a time-honoured Quebec quotation: "Le Quebec, c'est ma patrie; le Canada, c'est mon pays."

Ignatieff has adapted that to: "Le Quebec est ma nation, le Canada est mon pays."

A homeland is one thing - it's where you live. A nation is different, it's a place with its own language, distinctive culture and geographical territory. A nation has all the attributes of a country, except, in this case, political and territorial sovereignty.

In Quebec, we have been going in circles on this since the 1960s when the first Premier Daniel Johnson declared a doctrine of two nations, with the slogan, Egalite ou Indepandance.

In the 1968 federal election, Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield campaigned on a platform of two nations, only to be flattened by Pierre Trudeau, who declared that Quebec should be put it in its place, and that its place was in Canada.

Ignatieff explains his choice of words with an academic lecture, noting there are 5,000 recognized nations in the world, but less than 200 countries at the UN.

"The Scottish people consider themselves a nation, but they regard Britain as their country," he writes. "The Basques and Catalans regard their people as nations, but accept Spain as their country. So it is with Quebec. Quebecers, by considerable majorities, consider Quebec their nation, but Canada as their country."

Having opened one Pandora's Box, Ignatieff promptly opens another, noting Quebec has never signed the 1982 Constitution Act, and until it does, "our federation's architecture remains unfinished."

When the time is right, he suggests, "Canadians should be prepared to ratify the facts of our life as a country, composed of distinct nations in a new constitutional document."

Part of this new constitutional framework would include "the acknowledgement of the national status of Quebec and the indigenous nations of Canada."

Furthermore. He is suggesting "a constitutional division of powers among aboriginal, territorial, provincial and federal orders of government, with clear procedures to sharing jurisdictions that overlap."

A guy named Joe, as in Joe Clark, once talked about "a third order of government" recognizing aboriginal peoples. This was in the summer of 1992, during constitutional talks that resulted in the Charlottetown Accord, decisively defeated in a referendum. The whole package of aboriginal rights, an elected Senate and recognition of Quebec's distinctive character, sank under its own weight.

Ignatieff is proposing something much bigger: a reapportionment of the division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces under Sections 91 and 92 of the British North America Act, consolidated with the with the Charter of Rights in the the 1982 Constitution Act.

You're kidding, right, Michael?

Apparently not.

He's talking about a constitutional amendment, which requires agreement by Ottawa and seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population, the 7/50 amending formula.

In BNA federalism, the division of powers is at the heart of the constitutional bargain, along with the asymmetrical nature of the federation in Article 93 entrenching the denominational, now linguistic character of Quebec schools and the status of French and English as recognized languages of the Quebec courts and legislature. In Charter federalism, the emphasis is on rights, not powers, and by its nature it is symmetrical, with all provinces created equal.

"All provinces should be equal," Ignatieff affirms, "but all provinces are not the same."

We tried that in Meech Lake, with Quebec as a distinct society within Canada.

Ignatieff is proposing much more, but even less, for Quebec, recognition of nationhood without transfer of power or tax points.

We've had two referendums and two failed constitutional amendments over the last 30 years. For most of that time, Ignatieff was living outside the country.

It shows.

  © Copyright 2006-2012 L. Ian MacDonald. All Rights Reserved. Site managed by Jeremy Leonard