The Mulcair agenda for constitutional change

Paul Wells on the NDP bill on secession referendums


Fred Chartrand/CP

Miracles still happen. For instance, this morning Norman Spector had a point. The most interesting thing in the NDP bill on secession referendums is its 9th paragraph. It deserves more attention.

Mostly the bill is a shrine to Paragraph 88 of the Supreme Court’s opinion on the 1998 Secession Reference. As I wrote last night in numbing detail, any victory dance over an “obligation to negotiate” secession should entail some serious thought about what those negotiations would be like, and there’s none here. But then there’s a bonus:

9. For greater certainty, the question concerning the constitutional change may include proposals to implement recognition that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada, such as proposals relating to

(a) the integration of Quebec into the constitutional framework;

(b) the limitation of federal spending power in Quebec;

(c) permanent tax transfers and associated standards; and

(d) the Government of Quebec’s opting out with full compensation from any programs if the Government of Canada intervenes in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

“For greater certainty” is not quite the right phrasing, because there’s no certainty needed: a question concerning constitutional change (that is, as the rest of the bill makes clear, a referendum question on constitutional change) could be about anything under the stars. There’s no need to provide a list. So Mulcair and the Toronto MP who’s fronting on this bill provide a list for a different reason: because they want to trumpet their willingness to pursue this agenda for constitutional change.

I’d endorse, or would at any rate not worry much about, every item on this list. The first one’s my favourite. I do hope we’ll avoid a referendum on “the integration of Quebec into the constitutional framework,” because Quebec is already integrated into the constitutional framework. That was easy! Items (b) through (d) are variations on a limitation of the federal spending power, although I suspect we could enjoy many fun hours asking Mulcair to reconcile “associated standards” with a right to “[opt] out with full compensation.” That very debate used to fill the newspapers from 1987 to 1992. If you’re too young to remember, count your blessings.

But I’m actually a pretty lenient audience on constitutional issues. The notion that Mulcair is setting the table for a round of referendums and constitutional amendments on a uniquely Quebec-oriented set of issues would, if it ever got a lot of attention, provoke a variety of different reactions in the rest of Canada. Meanwhile, what hasn’t much been noticed is how little love his little bill is receiving from Quebec nationalists, who don’t want any federal bill infringing on Quebec referendum practice. The same audience would seriously not love Mulcair’s Paragraph 9, which deals with precisely one of the five conditions the Meech Lake accord was meant to address.

For greater certainty, what I mean is that the Quebec government in which Thomas Mulcair served as a cabinet minister would never have endorsed the constitution under the terms offered by the NDP Mulcair now leads.


The Mulcair agenda for constitutional change

  1. ”That very debate used to fill the newspapers from 1987 to 1992. If you’re too young to remember, count your blessings.” Unfortunately I’m too old to forget ! Nicely said .

    Oh boy another 5 years of wrangling over who’s view of Canada should prevail. There are so many contradictions inherent in the very makeup of Canada that any debate about such things inevitably brings out the worst in everyone. A lot of people are wondering just what Mulcair expects to gain.

    • It’s a private members bill. No one will be talking about this in 5 months, let alone 5 years.

      • One should hope so.

        It may have some importance with respect to whether the NDP can repeat its Quebec sweep or fall prey to the Bloc.

        • Yes, all the boneheads in English Canada throwing a hissy fit over this private bill seem to have forgotten how annoying it was when the Bloc held most the seats in Quebec for 20 years.

          Quebecers oppose the Clarity Act. So does the NDP. So what? Neither should be crucified for having an opinion.

          • No, Quebeckers in general do NOT oppose the Clarity Act: only the separatists do. And by opposing it, the NDP is strengthening separatism.

  2. Trudeau and Mulroney both came to Ottawa promising to fix the relationship with Quebec and it seems to me that their efforts really only exacerbated tensions, in Trudeau’s case with the War Measures Act, and Mulroney with his role as midwife of the Bloc Quebecois. I’m thinking we should beware another promise to take care of the Quebec file.

    On the other hand Harper came to Ottawa promising to improve accountability and to make our economy strong, so maybe what we need is a leader who promises to take long vacations and go to bed early.

    • Blaming Trudeau for the WMA is a bit of a stretch…Mulroney is utterly guilty of course :)

      • Actually Quebec’s premier Bourassa insisted on the WMA, demanding the Trudeau do something after Bourassa’s colleagues started being kidnapped and murdered.

        • I know. Thanks. And it was the UK high or trade commissioner too, Cross was his name[?]

  3. Canada really needs to set out the principles under which Quebec can secede. I’d start with this: the only referendum question that Canada would consider legitimate is:
    “Should Quebec become an independent country?”, or some *minor* variation thereof.

    It’s modelled after the question in the upcoming Scottish referendum and is concise and 100% unambiguous.

    I could go on and on about other issues (e.g. would an independent country of Quebec constitute approximately 8 million dual Quebec/Canadian citizens?), but I’ll stop at that.

    • I agree, though it should not be specific as to province. A “Secession From Canada Act” which sets out the question to be asked; the percentage of votes required; and the negotiable and non-negotiable terms of dissolution would give any province thinking of exiting clear guidelines. It would mean that those advocating departure could not BS the impact. And it would give some assurances to the rest of the world that the rest of Canada is not about to fall – thereby minimizing the economic impact of the breakup.

      • Yes, you’re absolutely correct, it should indeed not be targeted solely at Quebec, but apply to any province that might want to secede.

        • Maybe it’s because i wasn’t born in this country, and much as i’ve come to share this uniquely Canadian fascination with all things successionist, I have never really understood why we plan so assiduously for it. What happened to the old psychological adage, that you give things power or legitimacy the more you discuss the fact that they have to unfold this way or that, even when you don’t want them to happen? I can see the utility of knowing what the questions should be well in advance of course [no one wants to see 95 all over again] but i’m still slightly mystified by it all, even after all these years. I do believe it is at bottom a kind of Canadian national masochism…we love it and hate it simultaneously.

          • The PQ spin all kinds of tales about how easy it would be to separate and how wonderful it would be to be free of the yoke of Canadian tyranny. A lot of PQ supporters buy into the myth. If the terms of separation are spelled out in painful detail (and I mean painful; it ought to be clear that exiting will be truly punishing when they have to cough up their share of debt and they see they have to set up their own currency; will be denied dual citizenship; etc – none of the sovereignty association BS) it will be a much harder uphill slog to get the necessary support.

            If it is all set out up front, the PQ can’t argue it is just fear-mongering when federalists raise these things as counter-balance.

          • The dual citizenship thing is one that I don’t see being straightforward. Canada cannot in good conscience strip Canadian citizenship from people who voted “no”. OTOH, how would Canada know who voted “no” after the fact?

          • If they stay in the province that separates, then they have chosen to abandon Canada. We could no doubt make special laws to allow the quick restoration of citizenship to individuals who move back to Canada within a given timeframe post-separation, but if the idea is to leave Canada then they leave all the benefits that go with it, including the Canadian passport.

          • More particularly, anyone born in a part of Canada that remains in Canada (including perhaps parts of what is now Quebec) would have equal right to citizenship as anyone else born in Canada.

            But someone born in what would no longer be Canada would have to go through the same process of landed immigrant status and residency requirements before being able to attain citizenship.

          • But would we risk saying all that in the run up to the election? I know Chretien said some of it when he was getting desperate, and Trudeau always had that kind of moxy. But can you really see Harper making that kind of argument? Maybe i underrate him? Somehow i always see him as more of a guy to fights to stop something rather than offering reasons, with any passion, to stay.

          • That’s why it should have long ago been spelled out in an Act, at a time when there wasn’t a PQ push for a referendum. It would then be a straightforward setting out of the conditions. Any time the PQ – or any separatist group in any other province – started spouting nonsense, the feds could call them on it and point to the Act.

          • I’m kind of a “plan for the worst, hope for (and work towards) the best” person.

          • The great virtue of the Clarity Act is its lack of clarity.

            It’s more just putting the separatists on notice that the feds will have their say when the time comes, if they try to pull a fast one for the next referendum, if there is one. It’s a timeline of responses, not a spelling out of them.

          • Agreed. It is a feature not a bug, as the NDP so selflessly now claim. I believe they vote for the thing originally…now it’s politically inconvenient for them eh.

  4. Norman Spector deserves every bit of the generous praise you use to acknowledge his keen insights, this time.

  5. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2013/01/30/pol-bloc-ndp-unity-clarity-act.html

    This was endorsed by the Spector[silly pun] also. The last para is of particular interest. It does look like the bloc smoked them out, and may have even won the round if not the battle.

    “Meanwhile, what hasn’t much been noticed is how little love his little
    bill is receiving from Quebec nationalists, who don’t want any
    federal bill infringing on Quebec referendum practice. The same audience
    would seriously not love Mulcair’s Paragraph 9, which deals with
    precisely one of the five conditions the Meech Lake accord was meant to address.”

    This is my favourite part of Wells’ piece. In a way it so very human. I swear poitics was invented to prevent cognitive dissonance from making all our heads explode.

    If the bloc can successfully label this meech 2 [or 3] then they will have hurt the NDP both within and without QC, no? I guess the LPC will be attempting to do the very same thing.[ which is doubly ironic since Rae supported Meech…but who didn’t? Other than one guy who’s 13 years dead now, and another who’s presently PM] Who knows what Harper will be doing…miming the chesire grin and scolding everyone for being divisive i suppose?

    • A good many of us NLers were anti-Meech. My letters to the local paper won me an interview on Canada AM to represent the NL, anti-Meech side in a citizens panel (my 15 minutes of fame).

      • Were you anti Meech because you thought NL got such a crummy deal :) or didn’t you like or Trust Mulroney anyway – like me? I never had any trouble choosing between who to trust…Trudeau or Mulroney on Meech, or just about anything else come to that. Too emotional i know, but that’s how i remember that period – lots of hearts on the sleeve. Why not eh. It was only our country after all.

        • I certainly could not trust Trudeau on anything, since he had proven himself a base scrounger of benefits for not just Quebec, but the franco-quebecois. But when Mulroney started to want to lavish excessive privilege on Quebec’s government as well, that was the final straw that stopped me from voting for the then PC party.

          • You have a very one sided view of history.

        • There was the trust thing, certainly, and the way NL kept getting screwed over if there was benefit to be had for Quebec (e.g.: when Come-By-Chance refinery reopened, the Feds – who had owned the mothballed refinery – would not allow the products to be sold in other provinces because it might impact Quebec refinery jobs).

          But for me the big thing was that only one of Canada’s many distinct societies was being singled out for special treatment. As a member of another distinct society (who did not want or expect special treatment) I did not think it a good idea to create separate classes of people within Canada.

          • Yeah, i remember the argument that if QC was a distinct society then surely so was the Rock. That one had me right from the start.

  6. I overheard the granddaddy of all comments regarding, the Canadian politicians and government. They should stick their Constitution up their Referendum and, fix this g.d. country. I tried very hard not to laugh however, I failed. The two gents were somewhat embarrassed, I had overheard them.

    If Provinces are not happy with Canada the way it is, they should be able to leave. Many Canadians object to Communist China, in the tar sands. Harper is planning for China, in the rich resources in the High Arctic. It’s just a non-stop bone of contention, with the provinces wanting to leave. We have become weary, of hearing about it. If provinces want to go, then let them. If they unite with other country’s, so be it. The F.N. can unite their lands and themselves, with another country too. Hell, Canada is a free country. I am past caring anymore. If the country splits up? Fine.

    • Too long to listen to it all… and too much of it is just bluster and drivel.

      But do you have a transcript of the speech? One where I can skip over the boring bits and get to the meat of it?

      • Unfortunately not. The focus is on Federal-Provincial dysfunction and the superficiality of the French-English problem when everyone knows its really a money problem. But the best resource on creditisme would be the Pilgrims of Saint Michael. http://michaeljournal.org/home.htm

        If you are interested in social credit concepts on banking and payment systems as public utilities more generally, some good contemporary sources would be Canadian Post Keynesian economists Marc Lavoie and Mario Seccareccia.

  7. Miracles still happen. For instance, this morning Norman Spector had a point.

    So, uh, what do you really think of Norman Spector, PW?

    If you’re too young to remember, count your blessings.

    I remember it as a time when it was the subject of spirited debate, even during office coffee breaks. Voter turnout and engagement was very high, compared to what we have today. There will be no such debate now because everything and everybody has been reduced to talking point automatons. And how about that job killing $21 Billion carbon tax? It must be true! Dean Del Mastro said it the other day.

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