Since the Trudeau years of the 1970s, I’ve heard friends and associates ask of our Quebec neighbours: what is it that you want from us? And, when will you ever have enough?
Quebec’s answers seem to be: we are different and distinct so we want autonomy and equality of power with Canada—a “Canada” comprising the rest of Canada excluding Quebec.
Irreconcilable differences? Perhaps not.
But, first, let’s get our comparisons straight. The rest of Canada is not a unitary government which has formed a federal union with Quebec. More accurately, it is nine other provinces with which Quebec is federated. It is from that federation of states from which some in Quebec seek separation.
Moreover, Quebec is not the only distinct society within our federation. Ontario with its almost unique degree of ethnic and cultural diversity is also a distinct society, quite different from, say, Nova Scotia or Alberta. Other provinces are also quite distinct in culture or lifestyle. For instance, compare the lifestyle of Charlottetown, PEI and that of downtown Toronto, Ontario.
For all Quebec’s acknowledged distinctness, it is as unreasonable to compare Quebec to all the rest of Canada as to compare California to all the rest of the United States. It is, though, quite reasonable to compare Quebec to Ontario, or to British Columbia, or to Alberta, etc. That is to say, Canada is a federation of semi-autonomous provinces and it is to each of these provinces that Quebec can properly be compared.
Not only is Quebec being short-changed regarding their autonomy within a united Canada, but so are the other nine provinces. Had the fathers of confederation wanted top-down, top-heavy centralized government—Ottawa style—they would have created it instead of the federation they chose for us. They did not and I, for one, am glad they didn’t.
So we have congruence: Quebecers want equality, autonomy and recognition of their distinctness, and so should the rest of us.
How would Canada look if we had 10 equal, autonomous provinces all playing their roles as envisioned by our constitution?
All provinces, along with Quebec, would have the final say—and exclusive authority and taxing powers over—property and civil rights, municipalities, administration of justice, natural resources and the environment, social programs, education and healthcare. All would decide the degree of multiculturalism they desire, their official language(s) the level of immigration they want, and each would engage to a greater or lesser degree in social experimentation.
Defence, foreign relations and trade, monitory policy including currency and banking, criminal code, postal service, census, navigation and shipping, fishing, banking, weights and measures, bankruptcy, copyrights and patents, First Nations, and citizenship would be the purview of the central government in Ottawa.
Could Quebec not be comfortable in such a federation of equal, but autonomous, partners? Could Quebecers not fulfill their dreams within such a political construct? I believe they could.
But how do we get to there from here? Simple.
We enforce the existing constitutional powers of the provinces and limit the spending powers of Ottawa to the areas over which it currently has constitutionally defined authority. Little or no devolution of central power would be required, just a recognition of and respect for provincial powers which already exist.
Put differently, get back to the basics of federalism as envisioned in 1867 and as enshrined in 1982 in our constitution, and put an end to the trend to unitary government. I see this as much more appropriate, efficient and fair than our top-down, top-heavy centralized government—Ottawa style.