Trudeau in Quebec: constitutional changes are a no-go

ST-JEROME, Que. – Justin Trudeau says he has no intention of getting bogged down in the kind of constitutional squabbling that consumed a generation of Canadian politicians in his father’s day.

The Liberal leadership candidate has been asked by journalists, during a tour of Quebec, about whether he would ever reopen the Constitution to recognize the province as a nation.

Not now, he says.

Trudeau said Monday that he doesn’t see any public appetite for such a discussion and, other than some journalists and politicians, he indicated that the people he meets are more concerned with other questions like the economy and foreign policy.

“People are worried about their jobs, people are worried about where we’re going in the future, how we’re going to engage with the world, how we’re going to make sure that our kids have opportunities,” he told reporters when asked about the topic during a tour north of Montreal.

“These are old, old fights that are still very important to a small fragment of this population that’s outraged that I said, ‘Can we please move to something else?’ Well, I’m going to repeat it: Can we please move on to something else?”

Such replies prompted a muscular exchange with one interviewer, who scolded Trudeau for his musings during a weekend TV show.

Interviewer Jean Lapierre, an ex-politician, belonged to a faction of the Liberal party that longed to update the constitutional deal struck in 1981 by Pierre Trudeau.

During an interview on TVA, Lapierre asked Trudeau whether he found it acceptable for his province to feel excluded from the country’s most fundamental document. An incredulous Lapierre told Trudeau that prime ministers have a responsibility beyond discussing what’s popular.

At one point in the exchange, Trudeau quipped that they had just wasted three minutes’ worth of interview time.

Every provincial government except Quebec’s has endorsed the Pierre Trudeau-era Constitution. Politicians in that province have since sought some form of recognition of its uniqueness which could eventually be used, for instance, to protect language laws in a court battle.

But the last attempts to update the Constitution failed spectacularly during the Mulroney era — with the elder Trudeau leading the push against them.

Since then, no federal politician with any hope of holding power has made a serious attempt to reopen the discussion.

In that sense, Trudeau’s position is par for the course among fellow Liberal leadership candidates. When asked about the question of Quebec’s status in the Constitution, rival candidate Marc Garneau agreed Monday that it’s currently not on the radar for Quebecers.

“It’s not the time to talk about, or prioritize, these issues,” Garneau said in Ottawa.

“The priority of Canadians or Quebecers right now is really the economy.”

Repeating a refrain commonly heard from Quebec’s federalist politicians, Garneau said he would eventually like to see Quebec endorse the Constitution when the conditions are right.

Trudeau also said he isn’t necessarily closing the door forever. But he said he isn’t persuaded by nationalist arguments that it’s a pressing priority.

“I’m never going to say never,” the Montreal MP said.

He was asked during Monday’s news conference what it would take to get the discussion going. Trudeau responded with conditions that left plenty of wiggle room.

“If a Quebec premier were to come to me and say, ‘I’d really like to officially express that Quebec agrees to the Constitution,’ and I can do it in such a way that isn’t divisive,” Trudeau replied.

“What makes me laugh right now is the number of sovereigntists who are outraged with what I just said. I’m sorry, they never want Quebec to be in the Constitution. Why would they be outraged that I would say that I don’t think that this is a conversation that we have to have right now?

“It’s because their bread and butter is the politics of division and I’m not talking about that — I’m talking about the politics of bringing people together around the values and around the concerns that we’re living every single day.”

Historically, the debate over Quebec’s status in the Constitution has been a thorny topic within the Liberal party.

It prompted the departure of Lapierre to the Bloc Quebecois in 1990, although he returned to the fold once his nemesis Jean Chretien had left office and he became a cabinet minister under Paul Martin in 2003.

Later, in October 2006 during the party’s leadership race, Trudeau publicly criticized then-contender Michael Ignatieff’s pledge to recognize Quebec as a nation.

At the time, Ignatieff’s platform called for the recognition of Quebec and aboriginal peoples as “nations within the fabric of Canada.”

The debate within the Liberal party died down, weeks later, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the Quebecois a nation within a united Canada in a House of Commons motion.

Trudeau now says he’s fine with recognizing Quebec as a nation. However, he has questioned what message it would send to francophones outside Quebec if the Constitution were to single out only that province as having a distinct francophone character.

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