Fundamental law, or fundamental flaw?

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Fundamental law, or fundamental flaw?
The Globe and Mail, April 17, 2002

Opinion text by Guy Bouthillier, president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, published in The Globe and Mail on April 17, 2002.

English Canada is celebrating today, but should it be?

For just a minute think of United States functioning with a constitution that did not apply to California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada? Could the US raise an army, be the world’s superpower and broker diplomatic agreements throughout the world with a quarter of its population not willingly part of the constitution. And think about a European Union trying to impose a common currency in the United Kingdom against the will of Westminster.

Both examples are beyond imagination. Yet since 1982, Canada has been doing exactly what we cannot imagine for Europe of for the United States, blindly going about its business even though a quarter of its population did not agree that this was how the country was to be run.

For ten years after Trudeau’s 1982 coup, leaders tried to right the wrong and bring Quebec on board in a spirit of “honour and enthusiasm”. Any dreams of honour and enthusiasm, however, were doused when Meech and Charlottetown were rejected by English Canada, and then eliminated as the unilateral politics of the Liberals prevailed once again. Quebecers have always had a somewhat distant relationship with the constitution. The British Parliament, for example, adopted the Act of Union of 1840, thereby eliminating our Legislative Assembly and wiping out hopes of having a constitution based on the people’s will as expressed by Papineau and the Patriots. Then in 1867, the same British parliament passed an act determining what our fundamental law would be. That act was later amended by the British some twenty times to accommodate Canada’s nation-building.

In 1982, instead of drafting a new constitution and having it approved by the people, the Trudeau Government chose to take the British document and add two new sets of provisions, a charter and an amending formula whose net effect was to make power even more elusive for our elected representatives. For instance, the Charter specifically reduced the power of the Quebec National Assembly in matters of education and language.

Many people are trying to give the 1982 Charter an enhanced role in forging a Canadian national identity, especially in light of Canada’s perceived loss of influence and sovereignty since September 11. They trot out the latest polls showing how much the Charter is loved by all, even by Quebecers, who just happened to have adopted their own Charter since 1975. Who’s against motherhood?

Any discussion of national identity, however, requires that we talk about the other national identity, the one that, according to Messrs Trudeau and Chrétien, should be quietly disappearing. Well, surprise! It’s not.

Self-identification of Quebecers as Quebecers has grown steadily since the 1960s, and even faster since 1982. More and more young people whose ancestors were not born in the St. Lawrence valley are identifying themselves as Quebecers. When the Trudeau Government replaced the “biculturalism” of the Laurendeau-Dunton report with “multiculturalism”, it hoped to take power away from Quebec, the heart of French Canada. Quebec culture would be trivialized, becoming just one among many. Again Mr. Trudeau failed.

Canada now has two multiculturalisms, one English-speaking, in Canada, the other French-speaking, in Quebec. Quebec has been successful because of its own policies, developed and implemented despite Ottawa and often against Ottawa’s will. For instance, the most important policy measure in Quebec was Bill 101, the very same law the Charter of Rights was devised to rollback, specifically as regards the language of education.

Quebec has also developed in ways that many Canadians, due to a kind of historical prejudice, would have thought impossible. The key to success has been the daring and innovative decisions made largely by Quebec’s nationalist leaders, often despite Ottawa and the constitution.

Quebec’s economy has consistently grown, diversified and developed international links. Moreover, Quebec has braved the prevailing neo-liberal ideology and introduced new social programs, such as universal day-care, making it the envy of many English Canadians. Quebec cultural figures continue to be successful at home, but they have also become major international players, and they have no doubt who they are.

On the question of Aboriginal nations and territorial integrity, often seen as our Achilles’ heel, our sovereigntist government recently reached ground-breaking agreements and has been described by Aboriginal leaders as “a model for Canada and the world”.

And while there’s been little talk of sovereignty for the past seven years, support for it remains at about 42 percent, higher than it was just months before the 1995 referendum.

Time has therefore not brought Quebec and Canada closer together. All the cheering about the 1982 Charter of Rights cannot drown out the thundering facts that Quebec has not signed the fundamental law of this country and is not about to, that no political formation in English-speaking Canada is making any effort to correct the situation, and that Quebec’s national identity has flourished even though the constitution refuses to recognize it.

During a visit to Canada on August 25, 1943, Franklin Roosevelt declared in French: “Canada is a nation founded on the union of two races. The harmony of their association as equals can be an example to all of humanity – an example that holds throughout the world”.

Since 1982, no visiting president could honestly make such a statement. As English Canadians wring their hands about their loss of influence and sovereignty in the world, perhaps they should start looking for answers in the fundamental law of their country, which is more like the fundamental flaw.