In their British North America (BNA) Act of 1867, the Fathers of Canada’s confederation produced a work of genius. The two senior levels of government were awarded separate and exclusive powers: Ottawa over national matters; provincial governments over property and civil rights and “generally all matters of a merely local or private nature in the province.” This enabled Quebec to keep the French language, the civil code, and the French tradition of legislated rights and entitlements under a centralized authority. The English provinces kept their common law tradition of inherent freedom and responsibility under sovereign parliaments. Thus the matters which later became so prominent in national debate, namely language and culture, were constitutionally confined to the jurisdiction of the provinces.
Thirty years ago, when Quebec’s Quiet Revolution stirred its sovereigntists into new life, Canada’s political leaders fell into the trap of asking the wrong question, namely “What does Quebec want?” The question was unanswerable because Quebec’s political leaders wanted—and still want—something the federal government had just taken away from Quebec and from all the provinces.
What Quebec’s leaders wanted was the return of their constitutionally bestowed exclusive powers over property and civil rights. Prime Minister Lester Pearson was unable to give them that because he had just used the federal spending power to impose on all provinces a British-style national health scheme and was following it up with a variety of federally ordained social programs in outright defiance of the Constitution. He assumed that Quebecers’ chief concern was the threat to the French language in the surrounding English communities and that he could fix it by setting up a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. But then he made another mistake: the Commission was mandated “To recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races.” At once this legitimized the myth that has dogged the Quebec issue ever since. “Two founding races” was a misreading of Lord Durham’s celebrated phrase from his report of 1839 when he “found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” He was referring not to Canada but to Quebec.
Such a gift to the sovereigntists came easily from the hand of a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but Pearson’s next step on the road to appeasement was fateful: he recruited Quebec’s “Three Wise Men” to his cause: Jean Marchand, Gerard Pelletier, and Pierre Trudeau. That they were also men of the left, bent on changing the country to its foundations, was ignored by English Canadians who hailed Trudeau as the man to “put Quebec in its place.” Too late they found that his solution was to open up the whole of Canada to French Canadians by imposing nationwide bilingualism, and changing Canada’s system of government to the Quebec model.
Before long, resurgent nationalism was accompanied by violence. About 100 bombings in and around Montreal, some of them fatal, culminated in “the October Crisis” of 1970, when an amateurish organization called le Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) took the British Trade Commissioner and a Quebec politician hostage. Pierre Trudeau, who had replaced Pearson as prime minister, declared the War Measures Act, moved the army in, and suspended civil liberties. More than 450 Quebec residents were arrested and imprisoned without charge. The next day the kidnapped Quebec politician was murdered by a “cell” of the FLQ. The murderers were later given passage to Cuba. Of the 450 Quebecers originally imprisoned, fewer than 20 were convicted, and most of those pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
The swift response by Pierre Trudeau contrasted with the appeasement of his predecessor and did much for Trudeau’s reputation, and it is only now that the English Canadian majority —75 percent of Canada’s population —is coming to realize the event’s true significance. Trudeau’s prompt action set a precedent that has been turned by MPs from Quebec into an article of faith: only they can handle the bare majority of francophones—at most 13 percent of Canada’s population—who want a separate state of Quebec. English Canada’s acceptance of this proposition together with Quebec’s own talent for strategic voting in federal elections and a continued media focus upon “the Quebec problem” have propelled Quebecers into the prime minister’s office for all but two of the past 30 years. The English Canadian majority has been denied political leadership of the country in which it represents three-quarters of the population. Moreover, its subjection to successive prime ministers from Quebec has condemned it to suffer an organic change to its system of government: its tradition of inherent freedom and responsibility under a sovereign parliament has been changed to the Quebec model of legislated rights and entitlements under a centralized authority—which antagonized Quebec again.
For this, Lester Pearson’s appeasement is largely to blame. The reason for Trudeau’s swift response to the FLQ was that it posed an immediate threat to the revolution that he and his coterie were effecting: that of installing French Canadians into positions of influence and changing the federal system of divided powers to one that matched the French tradition of centralized authority.
In his book The Northern Magus, Richard Gwyn quotes Jean-Luc Pepin, then a minister in a later Trudeau government, that “We ourselves were a very small group, Trudeau, Pelletier, Marchand, Lalonde, Chretien, myself, and a few people in the civil service, say, 50 all told . . . and we were bringing off a revolution . . . we were a well-organized group of revolutionaries, just like them [the FLQ], but working in a quite different way of course.”
Surrounded on the North American continent by an audiovisual print and electronic world of English, French Canadians’ opportunities to learn English were boundless: bilingualism was the natural condition of Quebec’s urban populations. In the provinces and territories of English Canada, however, French was rarely heard or spoken.
This salient fact supplied the spark for revolutionary change. Pearson’s commission on bilingualism and biculturalism shifted language and culture from provincial jurisdiction to the national government. In Trudeau’s second year as prime minister, he passed the Official Languages Act that made fluency in French the criterion for advancement not only in the national civil and armed services but also “in all the institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada.” Since he was also creating new ministries and “a furtive expansion of central agencies,” the linguistic requirement paved the way for their eventual domination by French Canadians. It also intruded on the provincial preserves of English and French Canadians alike, and undermined the federal system. That it failed to appease the sovereigntists, while antagonizing the Canadian majority, all at huge cost to the Canadian polity, is a matter of record.
As a parliamentary statute, the Official Languages Act might have been amended or repealed by a later parliament. It was the threat of repeal that drove Pierre Trudeau to engineer his revolutionary change. Without having sought a mandate from Canadians in the 1980 general election, he incorporated the language laws in a virtually unamendable, but justifiable. Charter of Rights and Freedoms: the charter was the centerpiece of the “patriation” deception of 1981-82.
Canada has been a self-governing dominion since passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The only reason why Canada still sent its constitutional amendments to Westminster—where they were automatically approved—was the failure of successive Canadian governments to reach agreement with the provinces on a formula for amending the constitution in Canada. This Canadian failure was twisted by Pierre Trudeau and his fellow strategists into a colonial relic which could only be resolved by “patriating” the BNA Act to Canada by means of a Canada Bill passed by the British Parliament. But entrenched in the Canada Bill was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that incorporated Trudeau’s treasured language rights; his Official Languages Act of 1969 would be forever preserved and protected from parliamentary repeal.
In debates on the Canada Bill, Britain’s foremost constitutional authority, the Rt. Hon. J. Enoch Powell, made two significant comments. He said that as “an entrenched and justifiable document, a charter of liberties or a bill of rights is incompatible with parliamentary sovereignty.” He called the Trudeau stratagem “a tool to produce political results in Canada that could not have been produced without that form of deception.” Designated as the supreme law of Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms also incorporated the redistributive mechanisms and state-ordained equalizations which characterized the statist tradition of Quebec. By a cleverly planned deception of the Canadian public, the statist tradition of the regional minority anchored in Quebec had been imposed on the whole of Canada—and Quebec refused to sign it, because it invaded the province’s exclusive powers.
Throughout this sad tale the emphasis has been on changing Canada to accommodate malcontents in Quebec. Canadians’ politeness and generosity incline them to swallow the myths of Quebecers suffering at the hands of les maudits anglais and to accept the costs of appeasement. Nevertheless, to continue the appeasement is to fly in the face of history. From the Danegeld to Munich, appeasement’s record is unchanged: compromise in the face of superior force leads only to surrender. Continuing with the imposed Quebec model heralds a continuance of the socioeconomic condition it has led Canadians into: minority rule by a centralized authority, and a litigious society in which opinion is shaped by state-subsidized factions.
There is an alternative. It rests in a realization that Quebec’s statist model is not only out of date but that it does not work, and that imposing it upon the whole of Canada was a grave mistake. Salvation might then be seen in reinstating Canada’s original mode of a true federal system of divided powers; powers exercised by parliaments which are sovereign within their respective jurisdictions. The national government would concern itself with the relatively few matters that are national in scope, and the provinces and municipalities would handle the rest. The regional minority’s preoccupation with its language and culture would be contained within Quebec’s provincial borders, borders which would also contain the French traditions of law and centralized authority that the federal system admits at the provincial level. Quebecers, like everyone else, would be masters in their own house in all the affairs that are closest to their hearts and minds: the arts, civil rights, education, health, law and order, safe streets.
Until then, the dissidents will have to face a reality that appears to have escaped them: that their perennial threat of separation is predicated both upon Canadians’ generosity and upon its surviving the test of a declared independence. At that point, the generosity would give way to a quite different emotion. The dissidents would no longer be regarded as fellow Canadians with foolish ideas about destroying the federation, but as the renegades who had actually destroyed it. That is why the majority needs to stiffen its collective spine and generate political leaders with a similar resolve. Clearly it will look in vain to Jean Chretien or any other MP from Quebec. The Quebec model that Trudeau imposed on Canada is their model too, and they see nothing wrong with it.
The essence of the problem is that Canadians have been lulled into looking upon the charter as an advance, when it is not only retrograde but divisive and destructive. “Going back” to the federalism of the BNA Act would not be retrograde but a recognition of the political genius that the Fathers of Confederation bequeathed to Canadians in 1867.
“The essence of federalism,” wrote Felix Morley, “is reservation of control over local affairs to the localities themselves, the argument for which becomes stronger if the federation embraces a large area, with strong climatic or cultural differences among the various states therein.” Quebec is as different from British Columbia as Newfoundland is from Ontario. Immigrants work their magic upon the various cultures, but guarding them all would be the federal structure that stood the test of a century, before a handful of proud men from Quebec thought they knew better.
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