#2 - Constitutional Reform
The truth is, Canada is a country originating from not one, but two foundations.
The first stemmed from the 1867 British North America act, wherein Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia established the country as a marriage between these four provinces. Over the following 130 years, that family would be expanded with the addition of eight provinces and three territories.
Post-Confederation Canada would prove preoccupied with various challenges: the conciliation between federal and provincial powers, the debate over the roles of English and French Canada, as well as various controversies over the place of Aboriginals within Canada.
For many Canadians, the foremost problem with Canada was that its constitution remained an act of British parliament. Pierre Trudeau seemingly fell into this category, and in 1982 he repatriated the Constitution, re-founding the country based on principles established by decades of constantly evolving Canadian values, originally legally enshrined by John Diefenbaker. Trudeau entrenched Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights in the new Constitution.
Yet, Trudeau’s single-minded determination to patriate the Canadian constitution on his own terms led to an incomplete Constitutional family, as Quebec refused to sign onto the new constitution following the infamous “night of the long knives”. Also left out of the new constitution were Canada’s aboriginal peoples, who would manage to get self-government concessions out of the government, but yet in many ways would essentially remain wards of the state.
In short, the repatriated British North America Act 1982 not only failed to resolve the constitutional divides pre-dating the new constitution, but would also leave Quebec effectively constitutionally outside the country, yet locked within it by way of the 1867 agreement.
During the American civil war, president Abraham Lincoln intoned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. Yet, 25 years after this re-founding of the country, Canada remains not only a house often divided against itself, but a house built on an incomplete foundation.
This house cannot stand indefinitely.
While some Canadians have advocated solutions that essentially require tearing the Canadian house to the ground the rebuilding it, it remains a matter of debate whether or not this is necessary. Reform doesn’t demand a radical reconstruction of the country, only a more amicable alteration to current affairs.
A reformed constitution essentially requires the solution of Canada’s three major historical dilemmas: the place of Aboriginal Canadians, the relationship between Ontario and Quebec and the nature of Canada’s lingual policies.
Canada would best resolve the difficulties posed by the current status of Aboriginals by reorganizing their place within confederation. Canada’s six treaty areas should be reorganized into defacto provinces, each with the power to set laws within reserves, power of taxation over its residents, and powers to set policy over areas of provincial jurisdiction.
The department of Indian affairs would need to be abolished, and its funding could instead be directed toward transfer payments.
Most importantly, Canada’s aboriginals would be able to embrace Canadian citizenship and a place in confederation in dignity, with their demands for self-government essentially met.
Reconciling Quebec’s demands could prove more difficult. Quebec has historically had numerous demands, most of them driven by concerns over political and cultural autonomy. Yet, Quebec is also a rapidly diversifying province, one of the most popular destinations for incoming immigrants. As such, the presumption of francophone and (post-1960) Quebecois cultural dominance can be called into question. Even if Quebec isn’t assimilating into anglophone Canada, many immigrant groups in Quebec aren’t assimilating into francophone Quebec culture.
Brian Mulroney came closest to satisfying Quebec’s demands with the “distinct society” clause of his failed Meech Lake accord. This idea, however, was categorically rejected by the rest of Canada.
Yet, Quebec clearly is a distinct society. This being said, so is Atlantic Canada. So is Ontario, the prairie provinces, British Columbia and the Territories. Any recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness must recognize the distinctiveness of these regions as well. Furthermore, any cultural powers ceded to Quebec would have to be ceded to Canada’s other regions, and any political powers ceded would also have to be ceded to the other provinces.
Another facet of the Quebec difficulty is Canada’s lingual nature. Since 1982, official bilingualism has been entrenched in the Constitution. Yet, Canada has many more lingual groups other than simply English and French. Replacing official bilingualism with official multilingualism, wherein federal government services could be provided in any language appropriate to the region.
Most importantly, any renegotiation of the Canadian constitution must be fair to all Canadians. Not only the needs of present Canadians must be balanced against the traditions of the past, but the interests and needs of future Canadians – both naturally-born and via immigration – must be addressed as well.
Opening the Canadian constitution is politically risky, and negotiating a new agreement would be intensely difficult, but it will be necessary if we as Canadians are to build a better Canada.
#1 - Teaching History by Kevin Millard