The Constitution: what should have been said

My heart warmed a little the other night when the issue of the constitution came up. Having been just a young-un during Meech Lake, I was more obsessed with Nirvana, fireworks, girls and beer than that darling little existential spat. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get our own kick at the can. One can only pray.

Anyway, you’ll note how all three federalist leaders winced when Gilles Duceppe brought it up the other night. Ignatieff fumbled, Layton too (for a moment; more on this is a sec), and you could practically hear Harper’s spackle makeup crack as he said he wanted nothing to do with it. It’s a classic move ripped out of Jacques Parizeau’s playbook: bring up the fact that Quebec never signed the constitution, compare the Liberal leader to Trudeau, and watch everyone squirm. Mission accomplished!

Wielding Quebec’s somewhat ambiguous constitutional status like a chunk of kryptonite is old hat for the Parti Québécois and the Bloc. It’s remarkably effective because it jolts awake the aging, increasingly listless nationalists, reminding them of a time when the battles between sovereignists and federalists were high stakes drama and not some dusty sideshow relegated to election campaigns and the occasional flag-waving ceremony. It awakens real enmity, not the fumes of enmity on which the sovereignist movement has been coasting for so long, and federalist leaders are at best hesitant and at worst downright queasy to venture into the constitutional swamp, if only because the chances of sinking into the muck are so high. Brian Mulroney, for all his faults, honourably tried like hell and ultimately failed. What happened next?  I can’t really remember—err, Nirvana, fireworks, girls and beer—but I’m told it was awful.

So how do we get around this?

You turn it around. One of those federalist leaders should have said something like, “Look, Gilles, you imply that you’d like to see Quebec sign the constitution—as if you and your party would negotiate in good faith with whatever federalist party in Meech Lake, part deux. But you don’t, and you wouldn’t. You bring it up, and I borrow a line from  grand poohbah Jacques Parizeau here, only to provoke a crisis so as to reawaken the sovereignist flame. Intentionally provoking a crisis on such an elemental issue is the nastiest and most cynical form of politics, and it’s sad to see the Bloc stoop this low. Quebecers deserve better.”

Layton came closest the other night: you don’t shy away from the constitutional debate, you take it on. But he didn’t go on the offensive. It’ll be interesting if and when he—or Ignatieff, or Harper—does so.

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