Taylor C. Noakes: This is no way to run a country
I’m more than a little concerned that the prime minister of what’s supposed to be a multi-cultural, multi-lingual federation has thrown his support behind a “soft” nationalist
By: Taylor C. Noakes
Despite their best efforts, Canadians have unwittingly fallen ass backwards into a constitutional crisis. In his effort to be all things to all people (and secure the coveted Quebec vote in the run up to a possible election) Justin Trudeau opened the door to Quebec premier François Legault to unilaterally change portions of the constitution. Though the effort was likely meant to encourage a greater spirit of unity and belonging amongst the soft nationalists who support Legault, the effect seems to be the opposite. Not only are Quebec nationalists insisting they get what shouldn't have been offered to them in the first place, now other premiers have been encouraged to use the constitution just as self-servingly.
While a degree of constitutional flexibility and a spirit of accommodation are welcome in any federation, I’m more than a little concerned that the prime minister of what’s supposed to be a multicultural, multi-lingual federation has thrown his support behind a “soft” nationalist whose Bill 96 seeks to satisfy hardline ethno-nationalists who compose much of his electoral base. The premise of Quebec's Bill 96 — that the French language is threatened — is faulty enough, but the proposed constitutional amendments essentially mean the whole federation has to accept this idea as a statement of fact with potentially far-reaching legal implications.
This doesn’t strike me as strong federal leadership. Rather the opposite.
It doesn’t seem like the decision has made Trudeau the Younger any new friends in the “strong federalism” camp of Canadian politics, but it’s unlikely a Trudeau is going to make big gains with the Quebec nationalist crowd either. It did encourage Jason Kenney to state that Alberta will follow in Quebec’s footsteps in terms of advocating more aggressively for its own interests, but I can’t imagine that was Trudeau’s intended result either.
Let’s look more closely at what Quebec is actually asserting. Whether the province forms a nation is open to interpretation as the concept of nationhood is highly subjective. A Harper-era federal motion on Quebec nationhood was passed with near-unanimous support in 2006, but this isn’t a law, nor did it have any constitutional bearing. Quebec’s National Assembly had already passed a similar motion with unanimous support in 2003.
As to the supremacy of the French language in Quebec, this is already guaranteed by Bill 101 — the Charter of the French Language. Minority languages are already protected by the Constitution as well, but Legault is challenging these rights in his effort to abolish school boards and limit access to English-language postsecondary education. Amending the national constitution to recognize Quebec as wholly and solely Francophone may change how minority language rights are interpreted in any future judicial challenge.
According to some experts, Legault’s proposed amendments might be unconstitutional. Experts quoted in the Globe and Mail and Policy Options point out that what Legault is proposing would require the consent of the House and the Senate. Professor Emmett Macfarlane, writing for Policy Options, put forward his opinion that while Quebec is free to recognize itself as a nation (i.e via the National Assembly), what Legault is proposing “imposes recognition of a contested fact on the rest of the federation,” which in his view would require parliamentary approval as well as seven out of ten provinces representing half the national population.
Granted, this is a discussion where expert opinion is paramount and where the judiciary will likely make the final call, but it’s distressing nonetheless that the prime minister’s interpretation of the constitution his own father helped create seems to be very much at odds with some leading experts. Of greater concern is that Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh — the two men who would ostensibly compete for Trudeau’s job — haven’t been forthcoming with their own understanding of the Constitution and the legality of Legault’s proposals. It seemed both men were quick to agree with Trudeau’s interpretation of the Constitution and position themselves as at least equally enthusiastic in their support.
If Quebec is given the green light to call itself a nation, how about Ontario, or British Columbia? What happens if Manitoba declares itself unilingually English? Or when Nova Scotia proclaims its official national religion is Evangelical Christianity? Has the door not been opened to New Brunswick declaring itself, once and for all, a subsidiary of the Irving Family?
It’s fairly clear why Trudeau was so open to Legault’s proposal, and why no other major national party opposed it: Quebec is a battleground province that can easily go one of four ways in a federal election, and soft ethno-nationalism seems to work well at the polls. It’s evidently inadvisable to let values, ethics, basic morality or constitutional law get in the way of potential gains in a possible election year.
Premier Legault’s policy pincer move (Bill 21, limiting the right of public-sector workers to wear “ostentatious” displays of their faith, and Bill 96 which “strengthens” pre-existing language laws by limiting which language adults can be instructed in, among others) has one target clearly in mind: Quebec’s immigrant community. Despite ample evidence immigrants of diverse backgrounds quickly integrate into Quebec society and generally master the French language within a generation, immigrants don’t quite assimilate to the unreasonable standards held by Legault’s support base, nearly all of whom live outside the province’s multicultural metropolis of Montreal.
In order to maintain Quebec’s overall demographic heft within the federation — and by extension the prominence of the French language — the province needs to maintain a steady stream of immigrants. But Quebec society also wants immigrants who will rapidly assimilate into the Quebec cultural mainstream. While it’s understandable why Quebec would want French-speaking immigrants, restrictions on wearing religious symbols in certain public sector jobs, proposed limitations on the language of instruction in postsecondary institutions and the perpetual threat of a values test remind us that there’s a wide gulf between the province’s immigration needs and societal views on immigrants. As Quebec nationalists occasionally point out, multiculturalism isn’t a Quebec value (though it doesn't seem to be particularly valued elsewhere in the country either).
It’s disappointing that Trudeau has been essentially supportive of Legault’s schemes, not only given his own familial and professional connections to the school of strong federalism, but also because the people Quebec’s ethno-nationalist laws and amendments hurt most happen to be his own constituents. Troubling too that Jagmeet Singh — someone who has been vocal about his personal experiences with the country’s vicious racism — can’t muster the courage to oppose laws that would force him to remove his turban in a Quebec courtroom.
All of this may have appeared to be moot when someone who actually knows what she’s talking about torpedoed — unilaterally I might add — the May 26th Bloc Québécois motion to recognize Quebec’s apparent right to fiddle with the constitution. Former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould demonstrated both her characteristic integrity and respect for basic legal norms in denying the Bloc’s eleventh-hour motion, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the matter. Professor Macfarlane’s take is that the Bloc motion was ultimately irrelevant to the constitutional validity of Legault’s Bill 96, since parliamentary motions of support have no legal basis.
Foundational, unifying documents that are supposed to represent all of us cannot be subject to myopic, self-serving fiddling by provinces in the off chance this might be an election year. On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the patriation of the constitution and the institution of the charter — documents held in high esteem by nations all over the world and widely emulated I might add — it is profoundly pathetic that the prime minister seems to be so enthusiastically undermining them and any semblance of executive power. It is more than just this latest episode of federal kowtowing to the worst elements in Quebec politics and society: the prime minister has tacitly endorsed a “facts and laws don’t matter” approach to governance.
This is no way to run or build a nation.
If Trudeau, O’Toole and Singh lack the courage to stand up to systemic racism, stand with the voiceless who will be harmed most by these punitive laws, and stand for the nation they ostensibly hope to lead, they should stand aside for people with a better grasp of what leadership really means.
Taylor C. Noakes is a public historian and independent journalist from Montreal.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com